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For Sunnis fleeing Baghdad, once-deadly Fallujah is a refuge

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- About 30 Sunni refugees seeking a safe haven from Baghdad sat under the shade of a camouflage net on the outskirts of Fallujah, waiting at a makeshift US facility for city IDs.

A young man with a red and white scarf around his head pulled a reporter aside and lifted his right pant leg, exposing a shin with marks where Shi'ite militiamen had bored into the bone with an electric drill -- the tool of choice for Baghdad torture specialists.

Security is tight and snipers abound, but Fallujah, once an extremely violent Sunni insurgent bastion where the charred bodies of four Blackwater security men were hung on a bridge, has become a refuge from death squads and mortar battles in Baghdad. US Marines say about 150 Iraqis flee here each week from the capital, 40 miles to the east.

Unlike Baghdad, which houses large numbers of both Muslim sects, Fallujah's population is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab. As a result, Fallujah has not experienced the raging sectarian warfare that has the capital teetering on the brink of civil war. The migration is part of a larger exodus out of Baghdad, where entire neighborhoods have been uprooted.

Population figures in Iraq are little more than estimates, but Fallujah was said to have about 450,000 residents before US forces stormed the city in November 2004 to drive out the insurgents. As the assault gained force, nearly 400,000 fled, but the Americans say there are about 300,000 living in the city now.

Two years after the US attack on Fallujah, Marine Colonel Lawrence Nicholson takes pride in what he and his troops have done since taking over.

Nicholson strides the stony ground here in camouflage fatigues, his dog tag secured under the laces of his left boot. He does not slip into his flak jacket but instead his bulletproof vest.

"This is the club. Welcome to our country club, our gated community," the 51-year-old Toronto native said with a grin during a tour of the city last week.

But many intense problems in Fallujah remain. Two City Council members, and the council president, have been assassinated since February. At least 30 police officers were gunned down this summer. The mayor fled in July.

Reconstruction of the city, ruined in the Marine assault, is in progress but far from complete.

There is no bustle on the main street, and not much to bustle to. Unemployment is well above 50 percent. The cement factories are only now struggling back to life.

A reporter who tried to step outdoors during a City Council meeting, part of the tour, was grabbed by the arm and pulled back inside by Marines who warned of snipers.

Nicholson and his 5,000 Marines of Regimental Combat Team 5 in Fallujah sealed the incoming roads with what they call entry control points, held by Americans, Iraqi soldiers, and Iraqi police. As a result, a line of cars stretches at Fallujah's eastern reaches.

The Americans said they have reduced the wait to about 40 minutes since the points were put in place several months ago.

At one point, Nicholson strode in to begin directing traffic himself, then pulled a local Iraqi policeman -- a Sunni Muslim -- together with an Iraqi soldier -- a Shi'ite -- and asked them whether there were any problems. The men, from the rival sects whose conflict is tearing apart central Iraq, assured him all was well.

Nicholson smiled.

He was seriously wounded the day he took control of his team. He missed the Fallujah operation but has returned and surrounded himself with an impressive team. His officers are smart -- specialists in Sunni affairs, linguists, organizational specialists.

Nicholson keeps a tight rein on Fallujah and its townspeople. He says he understands their deep ambivalence about the US forces that keep the peace.

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