FALLUJA, Iraq (Reuters) – U.S. Marines handed control of Falluja to a former general in Saddam Hussein’s feared Republican Guard on Friday in a bid to end a month-long siege that killed hundreds in the city and infuriated Iraqis.
In a reversal of Washington’s previous policy of excluding members of Saddam’s Baathist regime from power, Jasim Mohamed Saleh told Reuters his force would help police and other Iraqi security forces bring order to the city of 300,000.
The commander of the Marines, who pulled back from siege positions around the city, was quoted as saying the former commanding general of Saddam’s 38th Infantry Division would lead about 900 mostly former Iraqi soldiers to replace U.S. forces.
“We have now begun forming a new emergency military force to help the forces of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and the Iraqi police in completing the mission of imposing security and stability in Falluja without the need for the American army, which the people of Falluja reject,” Saleh said.
Falluja’s police chief confirmed the deal to Reuters.
Hundreds of people, some waving the Saddam-era Iraqi flag, cheered the former general as he was driven into the center of his home town wearing his military uniform.
Marines pulled back from positions along the southern and western edges of the city, witnesses said. But they appeared to hold on to strongpoints dominating the Golan district to the north, where they have fought fierce gunbattles and called in bombers on Thursday evening against Sunni Muslim insurgents.
A relative of Saleh said he was chief-of-staff of a brigade of the elite Republican Guard before transferring to a line infantry division. Senior officers were expected to be members of Saddam’s Baath party. The U.S. occupying authority disbanded the 375,000-strong Iraqi armed forces after last year’s war.
The top Marine Corps officer in Iraq, Lieutenant General James Conway told the New York Times the new unit would be called the 1st Battalion of the Falluja Brigade.
U.S. and Iraqi officials had said this month that some of Saddam’s generals could be recruited to a new Iraqi army.
It was unclear what influence the new Iraqi force in Falluja has over the estimated 2,000 or so guerrillas, some of whom U.S. officials say are diehard Saddam supporters in a city once fiercely loyal to his minority Sunni-dominated regime.
Some 200 foreign Islamic militants have also been active, U.S. commanders and Iraqi officials in Baghdad say. Local doctors say about 600 people died in fighting in Falluja.
People who had fled homes in Falluja lined up at military checkpoints to return but troops let few pass into the town.
U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz spoke of trying to “isolate the killers from the population.”
Iraqis who suffered oppression by Saddam’s armed forces had mixed feelings about the move in Falluja.
Mahmoud Othman, a Kurd on the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, said it was worthwhile to end fighting. But he added: “It’s not a good precedent…As usual, the Americans, without consulting anyone at all, have gone ahead with a policy to replace an earlier, failed policy…I’m not crazy about coming back to make a deal with someone from the Republican Guard.”
Further details of the accord remained elusive. U.S. demands that Marines launch joint patrols with Iraqi police inside town appeared to have been dropped. There was no word on a call to local people to hand over the killers of four U.S. contractors whose bodies were publicly mutilated, prompting the U.S. siege.
PENTAGON’S FIRM HAND
President Bush gave his troops a free hand this week to retake control of the city, a symbol of insurgency in the “Sunni triangle” west and north of Baghdad, and the Pentagon has sent dozens more heavy tanks to the area.
A U.S. defense official said efforts to win over hearts and minds before handing over formal sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government on June 30 had to be balanced with a need to show that resistance to the U.S. occupation would not be tolerated.
“The Iraqis do respect strength. In their mind, a lot of that strength comes from combat power presence,” he said.
April has been the bloodiest month for American forces in 13 months in Iraq. Ten deaths on Thursday meant nearly a quarter of the 534 U.S. combat deaths have occurred this month.
However, appealing to Iraqi public opinion is vital for U.S. officials trying to restore some stability. The troops are likely to be in Iraq for a considerable time to come.
The June 30 deadline for ceding power to an interim Iraqi government would mark only the beginning of the transfer of sovereignty, Vice President Dick Cheney said on Thursday.
Efforts to soothe Iraqi feelings were not helped by the wide dissemination of humiliating photographs, first broadcast in the United States, which appear to show U.S. soldiers abusing detainees at Saddam’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
Arab television channels broadcast the pictures on Friday.