FALLUJA, Iraq (Reuters) - As U.S. forces pull out of Iraq, residents and officials in Falluja say they leave behind bullet-riddled homes, destroyed infrastructure and a worrying increase in birth defects and maladies in a city polluted by weapons and war chemicals.
Amir Hussain and Awfa Abdullah got married in Falluja in 2004 but their lives were turned upside by the birth of their two babies.
Their first child, a baby boy born in 2006, had brain damage and died last year. The second, a baby girl who was born in 2007, suffers from severe skin rashes and has one leg longer than the other.
“We’ve decided to stop having babies. We don’t want any more, because it means new suffering and a new battle against new diseases,” Hussain said. “It is our bad luck. Maybe because we got married in the wrong time and in the wrong place.”
Falluja, in the desert province of Anbar, served as a base for Iraqi fighters after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and witnessed two major conflicts in 2004. U.S. troops used overwhelming force, tanks, fighter jets and helicopter gunships to crush insurgents there.
Falluja’s residents await the U.S. withdrawal by year-end with a mixture of relief and fear that al Qaeda militants might return. Some are still seeking compensation for the suffering they endured.
At Falluja Hospital, pediatrician Samira al-Ani said the most insidious legacy of the war is seen every day in a startling increase in deformed newborns since 2005.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have documentation. But before the war, we used to receive two or three cases in a week,” said Ani, who has worked at the hospital since 1997. “On October 11 alone, we had 12 different types of deformed births.”
Fallujans tend to blame U.S. weapons for ailments that were not seen in the city before 2004. U.S. forces have admitted using white phosphorous, a chemical that can cause severe burns but is not legally considered a chemical weapon.
“At last they are leaving,” said English teacher Thar Abdulkhaleq, 39, as he smoked shisha in a cafe. “For all these long years, I have asked myself the question: ‘What crime have we committed in Falluja to suffer such an ordeal?’”
U.S. troops withdrew from all urban centers in the summer of 2009 and redeployed to bases outside, including one in the province near Falluja.
In April, Iraqi lawmakers debated whether the U.S.-led battles in the city constituted genocide, but resolutions calling for prosecution went nowhere.
Compensation is still very much on the minds of Fallujans, though their views differ and the issue is a touchy one.
“What compensation could be paid to those who lost their loved ones? Let them go, we want nothing, just let them go,” Abdulkhaleq said.
Abdullah Muhammad, a 45-year-old tailor, reacted angrily to those comments. “What U.S. forces did in Falluja can never be forgotten. They must compensate Falluja,” he said.
In late 2004 U.S. and Iraqi officials launched a compensation campaign for the city. Fawzi Mudhen, deputy head of the reconstruction committee formed at the time, said the compensation to residents was “almost fair,” though it overlooked the extensive damage caused to the city’s infrastructure.
Of the $1 billion allocated for compensation, Mudhen said, half of the 500 million destined to affected homeowners was paid, while only $100 million out of $500 million for infrastructure was spent.
The showpiece rebuilding projects were a water purification plant and a wastewater treatment project launched in 2004. But seven years later, the sewage system is not finished, he said.
“The project’s future is uncertain,” said Mudhen.
From a peak of 170,000 troops and 505 bases in Iraq, U.S. forces are down to 10,000 on just a few bases. A steady stream of troops, trucks and tanks are headed for the Kuwait border, leaving security firmly in the hands of Iraqi forces.
Although many are glad to see the Americans leaving, some residents in places like Falluja also fear a wave of revenge killings if al Qaeda and other militants return.
“Anything is possible. Insurgents and al Qaeda were defeated when the Americans were here. Now they are leaving. Will they (insurgents) return? Maybe. Why not?” said Ayman Ali, 26, a seller in a tea kiosk.
The formation of the government-supported Sunni Sahwa militia, insurgent fighters who switched sides and took up the battle alongside U.S. forces against al Qaeda, helped turn the tide of the war. Sahwa are frequently targeted by a still-lethal Sunni insurgency, and Fallujans fear it could get worse.
“If that happens, security will deteriorate in Falluja,” Ali said. “Regrettably, our security forces cannot stop them.”
Additional reporting by Fadhel al-Badrani in Falluja; Editing by Jim Loney, Alessandra Rizzo and Sonya Hepinstall