The members of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, are creeping through the mean streets of Iraq's meanest town when their mission comes in. Intelligence officers at the Marines' headquarters at Firm Base One, at the edge of Fallujah, have zeroed in on an insurgent: a local teacher named Taufiq Latif Saleh, suspected of being the leader of a 10-person bombmaking cell. Fox Company hits two "dry" houses before they find Saleh, a burly, bearded man in a grimy dishdasha. "I am a teacher! I am a teacher!" he protests as the Marines march him out into the courtyard, bind his hands with plastic ties and blindfold him. The Marines order his four young sons to kneel and face the wall as punishment for cracking wise when the troops entered the house. As Saleh is bundled into a waiting truck and taken to a detention facility, Lance Corporal John Hammar, 20, spots the man's daughter in tears and sighs in frustration. "Little kids are crying," he says. "I'm the bad guy now."
For the Americans charged with maintaining order in this roiling, ruined city in western Iraq, it's too late to make friends. One year ago, the Marines launched an assault to take back Fallujah from insurgents, including some loyal to al-Qaeda leader Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, who had overrun the city and used it as a base for spreading mayhem throughout Iraq. A week of house-by-house fighting left hundreds of insurgents dead--and saddled U.S. forces and the Iraqi government with the task of rebuilding a battered city and persuading 210,000 uneasy locals to return home. Some military analysts hoped Fallujah would be where the U.S. could apply the "oil spot" strategy of counterinsurgency, with the aim to spread stability by clearing and securing individual cities and improving the lives of their citizens.
But like much else about the war in Iraq, Fallujah hasn't turned out as the U.S. had hoped. In many respects, the city reflects less the progress of the U.S. enterprise than its troubles. The city's reconstruction has been slowed by a lack of coordination among the military, U.S. aid agencies and the Iraqi government. U.S. officers on the ground say they have denied terrorists a base in Fallujah. But across Iraq, the insurgency hasn't been curbed. October was the fourth deadliest month for U.S. troops since they invaded Iraq in March 2003, and last week 27 more Americans died in insurgent attacks, many of them in Sunni-dominated Anbar province, which includes Fallujah. But Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi security forces aren't ready to assume the burden of imposing order in violent Sunni areas. While the city isn't an outright failure, a military official says the hope that Fallujah could soon serve as a model for U.S. success now looks like "perhaps the result of overzealous expectation."