FALLUJAH, Iraq—In a bid to avoid more bloodshed, the U.S. military tentatively agreed Thursday to loosen its siege of this turbulent city and allow former generals in Saddam Hussein's army to restore order.
The former generals will be allowed to command 900 Iraqi soldiers, all Sunni Muslims from the Fallujah area, who will move into the city to put down an anti-American insurgency by an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 fighters. As the Iraqis move in, thousands of Marines dug in around Fallujah will move back.
Marine officers declined to characterize the arrangement as a full withdrawal. But reaching out to old foes was another sign of the military dilemma in Iraq, where U.S.-led coalition forces for the past month have been entangled in uprisings that have claimed more American dead than at any other time in the war.
Ten more U.S. soldiers died Thursday—eight in a car bombing south of Baghdad and two in combat with insurgents, one in Baghdad and the other in the city of Baqouba, 40 miles north of the capital.
The continued violence and apparent lack of military progress fueled skepticism in Washington about Bush administration plans to surrender sovereignty to an unidentified Iraqi government June 30.
"I don't see how we will be successful in transferring power to a still ill-defined Iraqi entity if the country is still experiencing so much violence and instability," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a member of the Armed Services Committee.
For the first time since the start of the war last year, fewer than half of Americans support U.S. military action in Iraq, a New York Times/CBS poll released Thursday found. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll of Iraqis found that 71 percent view the United States as "occupiers."
Meanwhile, U.S. troops continued their standoff with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia, which remains highly visible in Najaf and Kufa.
Marine officers defended their decision to allow Iraqi army officers to reconstitute some of the Iraqi army. They said the Iraqi force would report to Lt. Gen. James P. Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which has been engaged in heavy fighting for weeks.
"These are good-hearted Iraqis who have been sitting on the sidelines who can contribute positively, and we would be foolish not to listen to them," one senior military officer in Fallujah said of the Iraqi generals.
"Elements of the Iraqi military did a lot of bad things under the direction of Saddam Hussein," he conceded, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The Iraqi military, however, also was a respected institution in the society of Iraq—and not every member of the Iraq Army is a black-hearted individual."
The agreement in Fallujah came after days of increasingly bellicose warnings by U.S. spokesmen in Baghdad that U.S. patience with the insurgents was wearing thin. Last weekend, U.S. officials pledged to enter contested areas of the city in joint patrols with Iraqis in an effort to wrest control from the insurgents.
But those patrols were postponed, and it was increasingly clear that U.S. and Iraqi officials wanted to avoid a major offensive that would result in heavy casualties and inflame Iraqi anger in the city of 250,000.
There was no formal announcement of the agreement, which was first revealed to reporters by a Marine battalion commander in Fallujah. It was later confirmed by a senior military officer in Fallujah who spoke on condition that he not be named. Another high-ranking military officer also confirmed the deal in response to an e-mail query.
The officer in Fallujah didn't provide details of the Iraqi generals' identities. One military official involved in the arrangement said the generals were summoned to meet with the Marines earlier this week.
One general was referred to as a "Gen. Salah," suggesting he was Lt. Gen. Salah Abboud al Jabouri, a senior commander in Saddam's military and a former governor of Anbar province, which encompasses Fallujah.
It wasn't clear how the Iraqi generals had spent the year since the collapse of Saddam's government as the insurgency, which includes remnants of the Iraqi military, grew. Asked how he thought the generals had been spending their time, another U.S. officer in Fallujah replied, "Farming."
The talks with the generals were separate from other conversations the military had been holding with Fallujah civic leaders. The leaders are being pressured to persuade the insurgents to lay down their arms. Though U.S. commanders announced an agreement for the insurgents to turn in their weapons, few weapons were surrendered.
It was unclear whether the insurgents would stop fighting when confronted with the Iraqi force or how a force of 900 men could control insurgents when a much larger Marine force had not.
Hours after confirmation of the agreement, fighting broke out, with Marines in western Fallujah receiving "direct and indirect fire," said Capt. Chris Logan, a Marine spokesman. The Navy dispatched F18 fighters jets from the USS George Washington to drop three bombs on the city. There was no information on casualties.
U.S. military officials bristled at any characterization of the arrangement as a "peace deal" with the insurgents.
"This has nothing to do with negotiating with the opposition. This is coalition forces and our Iraqi friends that we've found to work with us," said the high-ranking U.S. officer.
There was speculation that the new soldiers may know some of the rebels personally. That could help ratchet down the tension, but it could cause other problems. Some Iraqi security forces abandoned their posts during the recent weeks of fighting, and some joined the insurgents and militiamen.
Marines hailed the plan as consistent with their overall goals of getting Iraqis to police Fallujah.
Even as the generals were talking to U.S. commanders at 1st Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters at Camp Fallujah, members of Marine Civil Affairs teams were preparing plans to build health clinics and schools, a wing to the Fallujah General Hospital and a highway bypass as part of their hearts-and-minds campaign.
"We're not going to give up anything in the process," said the U.S. officer, defending the creation of what sounds like a proxy force. "We're going to transition forces."
The Iraqi troops assembled for Fallujah would represent a new military model different from the Iraqi army that the U.S.-led coalition has sought to create for months. It wasn't clear, however, whether the agreement in Fallujah would affect those plans.
(Rosenberg reported from Fallujah; Moran reported from Baghdad. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson contributed from Najaf.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2007