George Wright and agencies
Thursday April 29, 2004
The new force, known as the Falluja Protective Army, will consist of up to 1,100 Iraqi soldiers led by a former general from the military of Saddam Hussein and will begin moving into the city tomorrow.
Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne said the agreement was reached late last night between US officials and Falluja police and civilian representatives. "The plan is that the whole of Falluja will be under the control of the FPA," Lt Col Byrne told the Associated Press.
Under the new agreement, marines will pull back from their positions in and around Falluja, while the FPA forms a new cordon around it and then moves into the city. According to one report, marines in the city's southern industrial area have already begun packing up gear and loading heavy trucks today after receiving orders to withdraw.
Lt Col Byrne identified the commander of the FPA as General Salah, a former division commander under Saddam. The force will be made up of former Iraqi soldiers and police and be subordinate to the marine 1st Expeditionary Force.
Many of the insurgents in Falluja are thought to be former members of Saddam's regime or military. Last week, Iraq's top US administrator, Paul Bremer, announced that the new Iraqi army would start recruiting top former Saddam-era officers who were not involved in the regime's crimes.
Civilian casualties and images of desperate residents fleeing the relentless onslaught of artillery and air raids have increased pressure on military commanders to seek alternatives to an all-out offensive against the besieged city.
"Violent military action by an occupying power against inhabitants of an occupied country will only make matters worse," the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, warned yesterday. "It's definitely time now for those who prefer restraint and dialogue to make their voices heard."
Mohsen Abdul-Hamid, a member of the US-appointed Iraqi governing council, has also called for a halt to attacks on Falluja. He said that if the US refused to stop its offensive, his Iraqi Islamic party would consider withdrawing from the council.
US warplanes yesterday dropped laser-guided bombs on guerrilla targets as battles broke out in several parts of the city, including areas that had previously been relatively quiet.
Witnesses reported that at least 25 buildings had been destroyed. At least 10 people were injured in the fighting, hospital officials said today.
One Falluja resident, Hassan al-Maadhidi, returned to the city after fleeing earlier fighting, and said he was distraught when he saw the devastation wrought by the latest onslaught.
"I returned to see houses destroyed, streets empty and shops bombarded," he told the Associated Press, adding that he was considering fleeing the city again.
But US military leaders insisted the strikes had been limited, targeting only insurgents. US Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said: "Even though it may not look like it, there is still a determined aspiration on the part of the coalition to maintain a ceasefire and solve the situation in Falluja by peaceful means."
Troops from the 1st Marine Division surrounded the city nearly three weeks ago after a flare-up in insurgent attacks on the US-led forces. A series of fierce engagements - which are believed to have resulted in the death of many civilians in Falluja - gave way to a fragile truce. The ceasefire finally broke down earlier this week as violence spiralled and the US called in heavy artillery.
While there was no resumption of the intense bombardment today, news of the withdrawal was marred by controversy over the shooting of several Iraqi civilians at a checkpoint.
The military said a car crashed into a razor-wire cordon near the main checkpoint into Falluja and gunmen inside opened fire with assault rifles on the Americans.
US troops returned fire with a Humvee-mounted heavy machine gun, killing at least three men in the car, according to Captain James Edge, and injuring another. But al-Jazeera television said four civilians were killed when their minibus was destroyed in a hail of fire, in an "unprovoked attack" by marines at the checkpoint.