Ibraheem Sanad Mujbile is everywhere.

The kindly looking man with white hair is always in the background at city meetings, always carrying his little briefcase. On one side of it, ``press'' is written in yellow tape. On the other it's ``sahafee,'' the same thing in Arabic script.

He attends the meetings to report for Al Bishara, a city newspaper. He wants to help Fallujah understand itself. He describes a war within people here, many believing in the necessity of the foreigners and resenting them, too. Through a translator, he says of his readers, ``They need to know what's going on, exactly.''

He is the free press, Fallujah's journalist.

If there's hope for the future of Fallujah -- and Iraq -- outside of grisly self-destruction, the Plainville-based Marines in Charlie Company have placed their bets on a trifecta: The Iraqi Army. The Iraqi police. And the kids who don't yet have venom in their eyes.

Fallujah is the one city where U.S. forces have tried everything. Hands on. Hands off. Aggression. Pacification. Release to a former Iraqi general's control. And, finally, full invasion.

It was that climactic measure in November 2004 -- a massive, house-to-house battle to clear every insurgent from the streets of Fallujah -- that sets this city apart. This was the scene of the heaviest urban fighting, the only place in Iraq where the U.S. pressed war's reset button and started again from zero.

When the U.S. military says Fallujah has improved since the bad days of 2003, it is right. It was the worst city in Iraq then. Now, it might claim third place.

Fallujah may never have become known outside vast Al Anbar province if not for the events at its bridge. It doesn't look like much, just a single lane slung low over the Euphrates River. But two years ago the bridge's green beams became a worldwide symbol that things were going badly in Iraq. Photos showed portions of charred American bodies hanging from those beams, an Iraqi crowd beneath them, celebrating brutality.

They were the remains of four security contractors from a company called Blackwater, and downtown Fallujah had just consumed them. The violence sent a tremor through America and inspired the sieges that would, by November, empty Fallujah of people and reduce swaths of the city to gravel.

Ibraheem says there is progress in Fallujah. He also says of the U.S. forces, ``Any person, he doesn't like to be occupied by someone else.'' But he has hope that the occupiers will succeed. So he writes down every one of their promises.


The area where the Blackwater men were killed is now the responsibility of Charlie Company. At the start of a routine morning patrol, the company commander, Maj. Vaughn Ward, stops at an Iraqi Army post to pick up some of their soldiers. He likes to run combined patrols, getting the Iraqis to operate like Marines.

He was looking for 10 Iraqis, but he leaves the post with six. The Iraqis' equipment is a little mismatched, their helmets beat up. But their soldiering is getting better. Ward likes the way they've been meshing with his guys, finally staying put in a firefight and not letting loose with wild gunfire.

As the patrol reaches the market area next to what Marines call the Blackwater Bridge, shops are just opening.

The Iraqi soldiers exchange words with people on the street. A few are friendly. Most are cold. As Lt. Col. Chris Landro said once while driving over the bridge, ``We sometimes get looks that tell you: If your charred body was here, we'd hang you from the bridge, too.''

If there's anybody less popular than Marines in Fallujah, it's these soldiers, outsiders from the south of Iraq, and -- to raise tensions further -- mostly Shia Muslims in this town of Sunnis. But the Marines hope the soldiers and Iraqi police will soon inherit Fallujah.

``It's bad now, but hopefully it'll be good,'' Iraqi Cpl. Saad Oteeb says through a translator. He says he and his fellow soldiers almost have the ability to take over, but still need help: better technology, better weapons and more men.

Other Iraqi soldiers live at the checkpoint just west over the Blackwater Bridge. They live next door to a Charlie Company post and, if the Marines pulled out, probably couldn't stand on their own. They seem dedicated, but they have few supplies. Drinking water often comes from the Marines. And there is word that some of their pay isn't making it to them.