Fallujah, Iraq — U.S. marines decided Thursday to end their bloody, 3½-week siege of Fallujah, saying U.S. forces will pull back and allow an all-Iraqi force commanded by former general under Saddam Hussein to take over security.
U.S. marines encircled Fallujah on April 5 and have fought an estimated 1,500 guerrillas in repeated battles as ceasefires unravelled.
Heavy U.S. bombardment of the city for the past two nights, televised around the world, heightened international pressure to negotiate a truce and spare civilian casualties in the city of 300,000.
The arrangement was negotiated between U.S. forces and Fallujah representatives, including four Iraqi generals.
The deal provides for a new force, known as the Fallujah Protective Army, to enter the city and provide security. It will consist of up to 1,100 Iraqi soldiers led by a former general under Mr. Hussein, said U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Brennan Byrne.
”The plan is that the whole of Fallujah will be under the control of the FPA,” Col. Byrne said.
He identified the commander of the FPA only as General Salah, a division commander under Mr. Hussein. Many of the fighters in Fallujah are thought to be former members of Mr. Hussein’s regime or military.
Last week, Iraq’s top U.S. administrator, Paul Bremer, announced that the new Iraqi army would start recruiting top former Hussein-era officers who were not involved in the regime’s crimes.
Col. Byrne did not know the general’s full name. But a Lieutenant-General Salah Abboud al-Jabouri, a native of the Fallujah region, served as governor of Anbar province under Mr. Hussein and was a senior commander in the Iraqi military.
The siege began after the killings and mutilations of four U.S. security contract workers on March 31. In addition to the hundreds of Iraqis killed, at least eight marines died in the fighting, although a full U.S. casualty count from the battle has not been released.
On the southern edge of Fallujah, U.S. marines packed up Thursday, saying they had been ordered to withdraw from the industrial zone they have held throughout the siege. Bulldozers flattened a sand barrier that troops had set up.
Col. Byrne said the marines would remain around the Fallujah area, but not in an immediate cordon or inside the city. The FPA will be subordinate to the marines’ 1st Expeditionary Force, he added.
In southern Iraq, witnesses reported that Shiite militiamen clashed Thursday with U.S. troops at a base in the holy city of Najaf. There were no immediate details on the extent of the clashes. Earlier in the day, militiamen fired a volley of seven mortars at the base, causing no casualties.
U.S. commanders at the base, located about five kilometres from the Shia shrines at the city’s heart, said they were unable to pursue the source of the mortars because they do not have authority to go into parts of the city.
The U.S. military is treading carefully in Najaf, moving to put down Mr. al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, while staying away from the Imam Ali Shrine and other sensitive holy sites.