Marine pullout leaves Iraqis to subdue Fallujah

Former Hussein soldiers are rearmed as proxies

bomb kills 2 Marines


FALLUJAH, Iraq - Blowing up earth berms and emptying sandbags, thousands of Marines abandoned 3-week-old positions in embattled Fallujah yesterday, leaving behind hundreds of Iraqi troops who once served in Saddam Hussein's army to subdue an anti-American insurgency.

The effort failed to bring immediate peace. A suicide bomber attacked U.S. armor escorting the U.S. forces, killing two Marines outside the city.

Still, the general in charge of U.S. operations in the Middle East characterized the experiment of rearming an old foe as a proxy force as "a possible breakthrough" in the battle to tame Fallujah, in the area known as the Sunni Triangle.

"Yes, there is room for optimism," Central Command Gen. John Abizaid said in Doha, Qatar. He hailed the alliance as a way to drive foreign fighters from this city, which for a year has defied U.S. military efforts to control and rebuild it.

Marines seemed pleased to be leaving the city but weren't confident that the unusual arrangement would work.

Within hours, the Marines' 200 newest Iraqi partners put on a victory-style show, shouting "Allahu akbar" ("God is great") and waving a Hussein-era Iraqi flag at a gathering of Fallujah residents who were returning to the city after the bloodiest clashes of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Townspeople cheered the return of Maj. Gen. Jassim Mohammed Saleh, a veteran of Hussein's Republican Guard, who wore his olive-green Hussein-era uniform. His forces wore U.S.-issue Desert Storm-era uniforms with Iraqi red berets and carried their own AK-47 rifles.

Saleh's new Fallujah Brigade will answer directly to the top Marine Corps officer in Iraq, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

The brigade is to be closely linked to the U.S. command in adjacent Camp Fallujah, allowing Marines to call in airstrikes to support the Iraqis if they need to do battle in the heavily armed city, said Marine Col. John Coleman, Conway's chief of staff.

U.S. commanders expect the Sunni Muslim force to grow, perhaps to 1,100, as it seeks to help disarm and identify anti-American insurgents and, in some instances, put them on trial.

The arrangement is unusual, in part because the Marines are seeking to make proxies of Iraqi soldiers, whom the U.S. occupation outlawed early in the year-old invasion and who have been blamed for human-rights abuses against Shiites and Kurds.

For weeks, U.S. officers described the shadowy resistance as comprising disenchanted, idle former Iraqi soldiers, along with foreign fighters, Islamic jihadists and common criminals, raising suspicions of possible links between the resistance and the Fallujah Brigade.

At Bravo Surgical Company, Pfc. Randy Williamson, 19, of Tobyhanna, Pa., said the arrangement is worth a try.

"I hope they don't turn on us. That's my biggest worry," said Williamson, who was recovering from hearing loss, shrapnel cuts and a gash on his head after a car bombing yesterday that killed two other Marines. "I don't know if I'll be able to trust them fully because of whom they served under."

Williamson's unit was on a reconnaissance mission, checking the roads for other U.S. forces that were moving to other positions in western Iraq.

The unit had stopped by the side of the road after spotting an artillery shell it suspected of being a booby trap but allowed Iraqi civilians to drive past because the Iraqi mood seemed friendly on the first day of the new arrangement.

Then the suicide bomber struck.

"Everyone was waving at us through the villages we were going through, even the men," said Cpl. Chris Amstutz, 22, of Fort Wayne, Ind. "Then the vehicle came out of nowhere."

The Marines arrived in Fallujah in mid-March with a half-billion dollars for a "hearts-and-minds" rebuilding campaign in Anbar province but wound up laying siege to the city after four American security guards were killed and their bodies mutilated March 31.

The Marines had tried unsuccessfully since to send in a less experienced, U.S.-trained, Iraq Police and Civil Defense force, which evaporated amid the killings and subsequent siege.

Coleman defended the new arrangement as an alliance with a respected Iraqi institution.

He acknowledged that some Iraqi troops had been linked to human-rights abuses but said those under the Marine umbrella would be expected to behave under the internationally accepted laws of warfare.

"We're not betting on tomorrow. We will evaluate their performance day by day," the colonel said. "We're willing to take the chance that there are some black-hearted individuals in this organization. We'll ferret them out, and we'll deal with them accordingly."

Commanders refused to say, for security reasons, what parts, if any, of Fallujah the Marines are still occupying. Nor would they say how many Iraqi troops replaced them. Until yesterday, thousands of Marines had controlled about a fourth of the city and had called in repeated airstrikes using 500-pound bombs to repel insurgents firing on them.

Killed in Iraq

As of yesterday, 732 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations. Since May 1, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 594 U.S. soldiers have died.

Latest identifications

Army Spc. Jacob R. Herring, 21, Kirkland, Wash.; died Wednesday in Mosul, Iraq, after an explosive struck his vehicle in Talafar, Iraq; assigned to the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, Fort Lewis, Wash.

Associated Press

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