US marines handed over control of Fallujah to a former general in Saddam Hussein’s army yesterday and began to withdraw troops from positions close to the besieged city.
In a significant climbdown by the US, the former Republican Guard general Jasim Mohammed Saleh arrived in Fallujah to take command of 1,100 soldiers from the disbanded Iraqi army who live in the city. And in an apparent attempt to sabotage the new agreement, a suicide car bomb killed two US Marines close to Fallujah yesterday.
“We have now begun forming a new emergency military force,” General Saleh said, adding that the people of Fallujah “rejected” US soldiers.
General Saleh was greeted by cheering crowds waving the old Iraqi flag, abolished by the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. He met tribal leaders in a mosque. A US Marine officer said it would not be a problem if those who had been fighting the soldiers joined the new force.
A demand that weapons such as rocket-propelled grenade launchers must be handed over has been softened into a demand that they should be taken off the streets. The US says foreign fighters it insists played a leading role in the resistance may have gone to other parts of Iraq. Other officials doubt if there were ever many there.
If the plan to end the siege is implemented it will be an astonishing retreat by the US from its original determination to capture those responsible for killing and mutilating four American security men in March. General John Abizaid, commander of US forces in the Middle East, said the killers had probably already left the city.
The US willingness to concede so much is a recognition that the political cost of the siege has been high. Eight US Marines and several hundred Iraqis, many of them civilians, died.
In Najaf, a spokesman for Muktada al-Sadr, the radical Shia leader, said talks had started with tribal leaders and police. He said Sadr’s Mehdi Army might hand security to them and leave the city. Sadr would stay. In return, the US would promise not to enter Najaf or be hostile to Sadr’s followers.