FALLUJAH, Iraq—Blowing up earth berms and emptying sandbags, thousands of Marines abandoned 3-week-old positions in the embattled city of Fallujah on Friday, 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 American armor providing safe passage for 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 this Sunni Triangle city.
"Yes, there is room for optimism," said Central Command Gen. John Abizaid from 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," or "God is great," and waving a Saddam-era Iraqi flag in a gathering of Fallujans 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 Saddam's Republican Guard, who sported his olive-green Saddam-era uniform for the occasion. His forces wore U.S.-issue Desert Storm-era uniforms with Iraqi red berets and toted 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 would 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 Col. John Coleman, Conway's chief of staff.
U.S. commanders expect the Sunni Muslim force to grow, perhaps to 1,100, as they move 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 Army soldiers, whom the U.S. occupation outlawed early in the year-old invasion and who have been blamed for gross human-rights abuses against Shiites and Kurds.
For weeks, U.S. officers described the shadowy resistance as comprising disenchanted, idle former Iraqi soldiers, as well as foreign fighters, Islamic jihadists and common criminals, raising suspicions of possible links between the resistance and the Fallujah Brigade.
But at Bravo Surgical Co., Pfc. Randy Williamson, 19, of Tobyhanna, Pa., said the arrangement was 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 following a car bombing Friday 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, a scout with a Light Armored Vehicle unit who's been a Marine for nine months, said the new force might be better suited to finding the guerrillas who'd been attacking the Americans with roadside bombs.
"They'll be able to get a better inside connection on the stuff that's going on out there ... and have a better connection with the people than I do," said Williamson, who was awaiting word on whether his injuries were serious enough to send him home.
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 the Anbar province, but laid siege to the city after four American security guards were murdered 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 murders and subsequent siege.
Marine Col. John T. 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 portion, if any, of the city the Marines were still occupying. Nor would they say how many Iraqi forces replaced them. Until Friday, thousands of Marines had controlled about a fourth of the city and had called in repeated airstrikes using 500-pound bombs to repel guerrillas firing on them.
Besides making the town safe enough for the Marines to enter, the Iraqi allies are expected to re-establish Fallujah's security forces, something the Army struggled to do for a year, and arrest the criminals released from prison in the final days of Saddam's regime as well as find and arrest the contractors' murderers. Those arrested would be tried in Iraqi courts, which have yet to be established in Fallujah, Coleman said.
(Rosenberg reports for The Miami Herald.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-FALLUJAH