The police chief here, Colonel Faisal Ismail Hussein, waved aloft a picture of a severed head in a bucket as a reminder of the brutality of the fundamentalist Sunni militias that once controlled this city.
But he also described an uncertain future without "my only supporters," the U.S. Marine Corps.
Nearly three years after invading and seizing Falluja from insurgents, the corps is engaged in another struggle here: trying to build up a city and police force that seem to get little help from the Shiite-dominated national government.
Falluja's residents complain that they are starved of generator fuel and medical care because of a citywide vehicle ban imposed in May by the mayor, a Sunni. But in recent months, violence has fallen sharply, a byproduct of the vehicle ban, the wider revolt by Sunni Arab tribes against militants and a new strategy by the corps to divide Falluja into 10 tightly controlled precincts, each walled off by concrete barriers and guarded by a new armed Sunni force.
Security has improved enough that the corps is planning to largely withdraw from the city by next spring. But the plan hinges on the performance of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, which has failed to provide Falluja's police force with even the most routine supplies, U.S. Marine Corps officers say.
The improved security in Falluja, neighboring Ramadi and other areas in Anbar Province, once the most violent area in Iraq and the heart of the Sunni Arab insurgency, is often described as a success story, a possible model for the rest of Iraq. But interviews with marines and Iraqi officials in Falluja suggest that the recent relative calm here is fragile and that the same sectarian rivalries that have divided the Iraqi government could undermine security as soon as the marines leave.
Some rank-and-file marines question how security forces here would fare on their own, especially when the vehicle ban is lifted.
If Falluja were left unsupervised too soon, "there is a good chance we would lose everything we have gained," said Sergeant Chris Turpin, an intelligence analyst with a military training team here.
Marine commanders emphasize there is no hard-and-fast date for leaving the city. "A lot of people say that without the Americans it's all going to collapse," said Colonel Richard Simcock, commander of Marine Regimental Combat Team 6 in eastern Anbar. "I'm not that negative. I've seen too much success here to believe that."
Most of the fuel, ammunition and vehicle maintenance for the Falluja police is still supplied by the U.S. military, said Major Todd Sermarini, the marine officer in charge of police training here.
Some police officers have been forced to buy gasoline from black-market roadside vendors. "Ammunition is a big problem, weapons are a problem, and wages are a problem," said Captain Al Cheng, a company commander working with the police here.
Many Sunni leaders here contend that the Shiite-dominated government is neglecting them for sectarian reasons, and the bad feelings at times boil over into angry accusations. In interviews conducted in early August some said that factions in the Interior Ministry were taking orders from Iran, or that the government was withholding money and support because it did not want to build up Sunni security forces that it could end up fighting after an eventual U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
Iraqi officials in Baghdad deny shortchanging Falluja, saying they have authorized more than enough police forces for Anbar. "We'd like to support them, but that does not mean we can respond to their requests or demands," said Sadiq al-Rikabi, political adviser to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. He said the government had problems supplying the police throughout Iraq.
The marines operate as a "shock absorber" between the locals and the central government, said Brigadier General John Allen, the deputy marine commander in Anbar Province. The animosity toward Baghdad among the Sunnis here "worries me, but I don't despair of it," he said, adding that he thought the government's lack of support was more the result of bureaucratic inefficiency than sectarian hostility. "The challenge for us is to connect the province to the central government."
But first, marines in Falluja have to connect residents with their own police force. On a recent weekend, that involved establishing a joint U.S.-Iraqi security outpost in Andalus, one of the city's worst neighborhoods, where the pockmarked buildings still bear the scars of a counterinsurgency in 2004.
In just 24 hours, marines cut enough electrical cable and plywood to turn a shell of a building into a functioning outpost, one of the 10 they are building, one for each precinct, and to wall off the precinct behind concrete barriers, leaving just a few ways in or out.
The next step was to recruit an auxiliary force to help the police. They hired 200 Iraqis to serve in a neighborhood watch for the precinct, part of an effort to bolster the undersized force of slightly more than 1,000 police officers for the city and surrounding area. The corps pays members of the new force $50 a month by to stand guard, mostly at checkpoints at the entrances to the neighborhood, with weapons they bring from home, typically AK-47s.
Seven of the city's 10 precincts have now gotten the same treatment as Andalus. The idea behind the outposts was to roust the Iraqi police from their central headquarters, which they seldom left, and get them into the neighborhood outposts.
The new plan makes it easier for marines to act as mentors for the police officers, whose heavy-handed tactics are a continuing concern. The police need to learn not to arrest "a hundred people" for a single crime, Simcock said. "What's going to stop Al Qaeda is not having 99 people angry at the police because they were wrongfully arrested," he said, referring to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.
Despite the marines' best efforts to screen recruits, Cheng said, "it wouldn't surprise me that a lot of the guys we used to fight are in the neighborhood watch." But he says the new force has already made a difference, turning in active insurgents and guarding precincts that have only 10 or 20 police officers on patrol at any one time.
Come September, Bush will be holding up a few model cities in Iraq where increased U.S. military presence has driven insurgents to other cities where violence has increased or continues (or insurgents have moved indoors, underground, or waiting until the inevitable U.S. military pull-out) as justification for "giving the surge some more time." There will never be enough time, there aren't enough U.S. troops to police all of Iraq. And even if there were enough troops (which means a draft), at $10 billion per month of our tax dollars, there is no money to continue funding this fiasco.
As it stands, because of Bush's and Republicans' extravagant spending since January 20, 2001 (and tax cuts for the rich), basic programs like social security and Medicare will be destroyed through insolvency. With the unfolding subprime crisis (which is leading to the credit crunch that was inevitable given our debt), remaining in Iraq is literally throwing good money after bad. But like all untreated dry drunks, the Bush-Cheney policies have been based on high risk ventures. They require us to rob Peter (the Middle East of their oil) to pay Paul (the very richest .02% of Americans). To carry that off, Bush will commit more of the U.S.'s military might and broaden the war in Iraq to include Iran. It's a chain reaction at that point, whereby all of the nations in that region will undoubtedly become embroiled, and which might also rouse Russia and China to move against us for destabilizing their access to a steady supply of oil. Now that the Chinese are off of their bicycles and into cars (they like them big, too), building ten-lane superhighways and flush with cash from our outsourced jobs, they're unlikely to go quietly back behind the bamboo curtain.
Don't mind me, I'm just talking out loud to myself, wondering if there are any grown-ups at all left in our government, in either party. And wondering when it'll be time to admit that this noble experiment, American democracy, is over, as is America, and move to somewhere safe, out of the line of fire.
But to where?