FALLUJA, Iraq (Reuters) - Falluja, once the heart of Iraq’s bloody insurgency, is hoping to trade mortar bombs for bricks and mortar as it seeks to heal its wounds and return to normality.
With a greater number of police officers on the streets, there are signs that the city is on its way to achieving it.
By day, people, cars and minibuses compete on the streets as police try to direct the teeming traffic.
At night, men relax outdoors on plastic chairs, smoking and talking. Driving is still banned, but people ride bicycles and children play street soccer under the glow of recently installed solar-powered street lights.
The city is undertaking public works projects big and small.
In the western part of the city, minaret towers are being erected above a new mosque in place of a building destroyed in an air strike.
There are new hospitals, clinics and schools.
On the outskirts of the city, men in blue overalls lay concrete for a large sewage treatment plant.
Garbage dumps have been turned into neighborhood parks.
Police guard construction sites, and the security they provide is cited by locals as underpinning the rebuilding.
“The improved security means new job opportunities,” said Muaed Abid, a former teacher who operates a bulldozer for an overpass project in Falluja, 50 km (32 miles) west of Baghdad.
“Not only that, but we can lead a normal life,” he said, perched in the vehicle’s cabin.
Once in an al Qaeda stranglehold, Falluja was the scene of some of the bloodiest battles after the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.
A year ago, western Anbar, in which Falluja sits, was second only to Baghdad as the most violent province in Iraq.
The largely Sunni Arab province ranked fifth in attacks among Iraq’s 18 provinces from early May to late July this year, according to a quarterly Pentagon report released in September.
Falluja’s security reversal happened in step with new alliances among local Sunni Arab tribal leaders and U.S. troops which helped drive al Qaeda out of Anbar.
Anbar’s model has spread across Iraq with the U.S.-supported “Awakening Councils” of tribal leaders and neighborhood police helping contribute to a sharp fall in violence.
Falluja’s construction drive is part of a push across Iraq to repair buildings damaged by bullets and bombs, to modernize decrepit infrastructure, and to make economic growth possible if stability can be attained.
Since June, the tally for Iraqi reconstruction has reached almost $100 billion in U.S., Iraqi and international funds, according to a U.S. inspector general. Of that, the Iraqi government has provided at least $36 billion.
But the record of what has been achieved more than four years after Saddam’s ousting — and the looting and violence that ensued — is deemed by critics as lackluster.
They say time and money have been squandered, projects have been poorly planned, and violence and fear have crippled reconstruction.
Falluja may be one crucible for the reconstruction progress that can be made once some degree of security exists.
When Colonel Faisel Ismael became a senior police official in Falluja in 2006, violence and fear of al Qaeda attacks had thinned the ranks of officers to just 25. The force has since increased its numbers to more 2,300, he said.
“Al Qaeda or terrorism used to control all reconstruction efforts in Falluja,” Ismael said, adding that al Qaeda supporters had exacted payments from companies operating in the city.
“All of Falluja is secure,” Ismael said.
Samir Noor al-Din, an engineer overseeing the construction of an overpass, envisions Falluja as a future hub for Iraq’s highways, linking roads from Syria and Jordan to Baghdad.
“Where there is stability and security, there will be a rush to work,” said Noor al-Din, wearing a blue hardhat. His company has employed at least 600 local Iraqis for several projects.
At the Al-Julan health clinic, which opened this year, physician’s aide Mohammed Mishrif takes ageing patients’ blood pressure and examines their medical cards.
“Even the ill people have enough room,” Mishrif said.
Even though it has diminished, violence remains a problem.
Police are routinely targeted and U.S. officials have complained that foreign fighters have made their way into Iraq through Anbar’s western border with Syria.
Writing by Missy Ryan; editing by Gilles Castonguay