Marines broker deal on Fallujah

All-Iraqi force would assume control of restive city

10 killed in violent day for U.S. troops

April 30, 2004|By Evan Osnos and Christine Spolar | Evan Osnos and Christine Spolar,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Fueling hopes of a breakthrough in Iraq's bloodiest standoff, U.S. Marines and civic leaders in Fallujah said yesterday that they had agreed to a plan that would deploy an all-Iraqi security force to assume control of part of the troubled city.

News of the arrangement came amid a violent day for U.S. troops in and around Baghdad. Members of the 1st Armored Division were clearing bombs buried alongside a highway near Mahmudiyah, when a passing station wagon exploded. The suicide bombing killed eight soldiers and wounded four.

Another American soldier died in a convoy attack in the capital and one more was killed by a roadside bomb about 40 miles north, in Baqouba, a frequent source of opposition to the occupation.

The Fallujah plan emerged from a meeting between Iraqi representatives and Lt. Gen. James Conway, the top Marine commander in Iraq. Though unconfirmed by coalition officials in Baghdad, the accord would create an Iraqi force built around civil defense, police and former Iraqi military officers under one or more retired Iraqi generals from Saddam Hussein's regime, said Iraqi negotiator Ahmed Hardan. The Iraqi force would assume control of checkpoints and routes into the city to encourage families to return.

"We hope this will relieve the crisis in Fallujah," said Hardan, a spokesman for the Fallujah delegation.

Despite word of a possible deal, U.S. military jets streaked across central Iraq, and explosions and gunfire raged for the fourth straight night in parts of Fallujah, a Sunni-dominated city 35 miles west of Baghdad. Three F/A-18 Hornets flying off the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in the Persian Gulf dropped three 500-pound bombs on targets in the area, Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Danny Hernandez said.

After days of increasing pressure from the White House, the prospect of a pact that would shift the security burden into Iraqi hands pointed a way out of a monthlong crisis that has threatened the scheduled return of limited sovereignty to Iraqis on July 1. April has been the bloodiest month for U.S. forces since last year's invasion, and the Bush administration has been struggling for peaceful solutions to rebel violence in Fallujah and the southern city of Najaf.

A Marine battalion commander announced yesterday afternoon that some troops will pull back from positions in and around the southern part of Fallujah while a still-to-be-formed Fallujah Protective Army takes control of checkpoints and city borders. It remained unclear how the new force would be recruited and what training it might receive.

"The plan is that the whole of Fallujah will be under the control of the FPA," said Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne, commander of the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment.

Under the terms of the deal, up to 200 refugee families would be permitted to return to the city each day, according to Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al Samarrai, a member of the Muslim Clerics Association, which has been involved in the talks. On Sunday, the U.S. would pull back from northern Fallujah and the limit on returning families would be raised.

Many details of the deal remained unclear, including the timetable, the extent of the U.S. withdrawal and, most important, whether the rebels would honor it. Notably, the arrangement provides for how Iraqis could work to subdue insurgent activity but does not forge a peace with the rebels.

One possible sticking point was a U.S. demand for the insurgents to turn over those responsible for the March 31 killing of four American contract workers, whose mutilated bodies were burned and dragged through the streets. Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita said the U.S. still wants assurances that the perpetrators would be turned over.

Underscoring the political sensitivity surrounding a possible withdrawal, U.S. officials in Baghdad voiced irritation that the preliminary deal had been reported by journalists embedded with Marines in Fallujah.

U.S. civilian officials maintained yesterday they had no knowledge of the deal, and military leaders in Baghdad suggested the pact was crafted solely by Marine commanders in Fallujah. The lead U.S. civilian negotiator, Richard Jones, was not present at yesterday's talks that produced the arrangement, Hardan said, and the agreement was struck with Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

A key component of the pact appeared to be shelving of U.S.-Iraqi patrols announced earlier this week. Both sides had resisted the idea; U.S. commanders have questioned Iraqis' ability to assume responsibility for security after a large share of civil defense and police units fled, or fought against Americans, during the Fallujah fighting. Iraqis, meanwhile, have argued that insurgents never will give up their fight as long as U.S. troops remain in the streets.

Marines spent much of this week training Iraqis for the joint patrols, which were delayed repeatedly.

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