Fallujans are to begin trickling back this week, but a month after the battle for the city, devastation is everywhere. Burned-out cars block streets, even homes that still stand...

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FALLUJAH, Iraq — Fallujans are to begin trickling back this week, but a month after the battle for the city, devastation is everywhere. Burned-out cars block streets, even homes that still stand are missing roofs or walls, dead dogs litter narrow alleys.

Destruction is not total. At the end of a long block of leveled homes, for example, a children’s clinic stands untouched.

“It really looks like a time warp: Somebody left for the day and was told not to come back … ” said Lt. Cmdr. Larry Merola, a Navy Seabee reservist from Stoughton, Mass., who leads a team that checks buildings important to the city’s life: pharmacies, offices, gas-distribution points.

Even as the U.S. military pummeled parts of the city into rubble, engineers were laying plans for rebuilding. But even as the first groups from the 250,000 residents who fled are to start returning Thursday, most of that work remains undone.

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American officials acknowledge they would like more time to repair Fallujah and make it more secure but say that is not an option. Many of those who fled have huddled in refugee camps outside the city since the fighting began Nov. 8, and Iraqi leaders want them back now, to begin resettling the one-time insurgent stronghold before the national legislative election planned for Jan. 30.

“Given my druthers, I’d love to have two more months to rebuild the city to turn it into one of those things that you see about a model city, about trees with a little sign and ‘Welcome back to Fallujah’ — but we never intended to do that,” said Col. John Ballard, a Marine civil-affairs officer.

The water system is out, so 10-foot-tall gray barrels holding drinking water have been placed in groups of three, several blocks apart. The government has set up distribution points where people can get blankets and plastic sheeting for shelter. Gasoline will be given out to fuel stoves and generators.

The first residents allowed to return are from the western neighborhood of Andalus, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s office said yesterday. Other people will be let in over several weeks.

On the outskirts, Marines man checkpoints with low concrete walls, covered with gravel and ringed by barbed wire, where Iraqis will be checked in. Each family will be given a one-time payment of 150,000 Iraqi dinars, about $100, when they return.

Allawi’s office said residents eventually will get $2,000 for minor damage to homes, $10,000 for major damage and a new home to replace destroyed houses.

The city will remain under curfew, possession of weapons will be prohibited, except by security forces, and residents will have to wear at all times a badge indicating who they are and where they live in the city.

To avert car bombings, the Marines also devised a busing system that would allow them to prohibit civilian vehicles from entering the city. Ballard said there are no traffic lights in the city, and some of the roads are in such disrepair that they would be unsafe for motorists.

It was doubtful yesterday, however, that that part of the plan would be used.

The city’s streets are littered with animal corpses, and Marines sweeping neighborhoods for a fourth or fifth time are still attacked by insurgents who survived the fighting or have sneaked back in along the banks of the Euphrates River. Just over a week ago, clashes killed seven Marines, three Iraqi soldiers and 50 insurgents.

But Iraqi officials believe Fallujah’s people will not tolerate their city returning to the grip of insurgents.

“We are ready to cooperate with the people of Fallujah because this is an Iraqi problem and we, as Iraqis, have to solve it,” Interior Ministry spokesman Sabah Kadhim said. “We can say that the people of Fallujah will return as soon as possible because it is not good for us to postpone their return.”

Iraqi workers clad in orange jumpsuits walk the city’s streets, block by block, clearing fallen bricks, tangled metal and thickets of wires. On Sunday, 250 came into the city to do the work, said a military spokesman, Lt. Col. Michael Paulk.

Rubble-clearing has been one of the main projects so far, along with draining the water that seeps into the streets from the Euphrates River. So far, $1.6 million in contracts have been awarded for work, officials say.

“Public Order Brigades” of Iraqis are being trained with U.S.-supplied armor and weapons in hopes of providing a police presence. But many are young, and officials concede they have not gotten enough training to be an effective force yet.

While many Fallujah residents are clamoring to get back, other Iraqis delivering supplies and filling city leadership roles refuse to be publicly identified, trying to avoid becoming targets for insurgents who are attacking people working with the Americans.

“The people of Fallujah don’t want to have Marines walking around the streets, we know that, and we don’t want to have Marines walking around the streets,” Ballard, the civil-affairs officer, said about the move to return the city to local control.

“Now, how long that’s going to take, that’s a different question. I can’t really answer that.”

Material from The Chicago Tribune is included in this report.