FALLUJAH, Iraq, April 22 — The U.S. military said Thursday that little progress had been made in efforts to defuse tensions in this besieged city and warned that an all-out attack against insurgents holed up here could occur within days.
Suggesting that a peace deal brokered Monday was near collapse, the top Marine Corps commander in Iraq said the quantity and quality of armaments surrendered so far in Fallujah was insufficient and demanded that local leaders push harder for a peaceful solution to a standoff with the insurgents.
“We need to see a better indication of good faith,” said Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, who heads the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. He said he remained skeptical that local leaders who signed the agreement had enough influence over the insurgents — believed to be a mix of foreign fighters and indigenous religious zealots — to compel them to turn in heavy weapons and otherwise abide by the deal.
Residents, officials and visitors to the city of more than 200,000 people voiced similar concerns, describing tensions between tribal leaders who want to protect Fallujah and foreign fighters pushing a confrontation with U.S. forces.
“There are people who entered Fallujah and started to cause chaos,” said Jasim Esawi, a lawyer and native of Fallujah who transported aid into the city. “We want to make a distinction between people from Fallujah and those who came to Fallujah just to destroy.”
An Iraqi official warned that the U.S. military and Fallujah residents would be drawn into a devastating fight. “I think if we’re able to solve Fallujah peacefully, other cities in Iraq will fall into place fairly quickly. If we solve Fallujah militarily, I think we’re looking at the beginning of a downward spiral in Iraq that we’ve already had a taste of in the last few weeks.” said Saif Rahman, an adviser to Hachem Hassani, a Sunni Muslim who represented the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council in cease-fire negotiations.
“It doesn’t make sense that a foreigner decides the future of Fallujah and, with that, the future of Iraq itself.”
Conway’s assessment, however, made clear that the U.S. military was losing patience, and suggested that the peace agreement between U.S. and Iraqi officials was near collapse.
“It is our estimate that the people of Fallujah have not responded well to the agreement that was made,” he said at a news conference, speaking in the same well-scrubbed room on an otherwise dusty Marine base where the peace deal was signed Monday with local leaders, Iraqi politicians from Baghdad, military commanders and civilian representatives of the U.S.-led occupation authority.
Conway said he was willing to wait “days, not weeks” for compliance. Since April 4, thousands of Marines have encircled Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad, a hotbed of insurgent activity that has also involved remnants of former president Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party government.
Although attacks on U.S. forces had been a regular occurrence over the past year, Conway’s Marines were ordered to mount an intense counter-insurgency operation after a mob killed and mutilated four American security contractors who were driving through the city last month.
“We can’t keep the cordon forever,” Conway said. “If the negotiations cannot manufacture a peaceful scenario, we’ll have to do what we came here to do.”
Iraqi officials said a peaceful outcome grew more elusive in part because the U.S. offensive earlier this month generated a strong backlash in Iraq, one that cast Fallujah as the Iraqi Alamo, a symbol of courageous resistance against overwhelming odds. The perception, fanned by Arabic-language news coverage citing estimates of hundreds of civilian deaths, drove moderate leaders in Fallujah and elsewhere to align themselves in opposition to the coalition. Other Iraqis were inspired to take up arms.
“That’s what’s problematic,” Rahman said. “And that’s what happening across Iraq. You see Abu Ghraib [prison] lighting up. You see Mosul lighting up. You see cities lighting up across southern Iraq, which had been reasonably quiet.”
The presence of religious zealots adds a volatile complication. By most accounts, foreigners fighting in Fallujah number only in the dozens. “Some of them we call Wahhabis: Iraqis and Afghans, Yemenis, Egyptians, Jordanians,” said a Fallujah resident interviewed in Baghdad who gave the nom de guerre Abu Taif. “They entered three days after these events started. These kind of people, they don’t submit to Allah or the Koran. They came to harm us. They came to use Islam. They came to Fallujah so they could fight Americans.
“When the truce was called, they broke it.”
Another Iraqi sympathetic to the insurgency described witnessing an argument between a local sheik and an Afghan in a hut near the front line. The sheik “was very angry” and scolded the foreigner for showing the same disregard for civilians in Fallujah as for “the innocent people in the trade towers,” said the Baghdad resident, described traveling several times to Fallujah over unpatrolled back roads.
He said the Afghan, who wore a suicide belt into battle and was seen speaking on a satellite telephone, refused to stop fighting, insisting that Fallujah was a cause for all Arabs.
“They believe that everyone who dies here in Iraq will be a martyr, but they don’t think about the children that will die because of them,” said Hisham Dulaimy, a native of Ramadi, who described similar tensions between Syrian fighters and tribal leaders in that city, which is west of Fallujah. “We believe al Qaeda and America are turning Iraq into a war zone.”
Under the terms of the peace agreement, people in Fallujah were to surrender all heavy weapons, including mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. In exchange, the Marines promised to ease their siege of the city, relax a nighttime curfew and provide residents with unfettered access to the municipal hospital.
The city’s police chief informed Marine officers Wednesday afternoon that the first load of weapons was ready to be collected. When the Marines arrived, they found a pickup truck loaded with rusted, antiquated and useless arms.
Among the weapons were 113 unusable mortar shells, a dozen rocket-propelled grenades with inert training rounds, five 57mm rockets with dud warheads, a sack of old bullets and seven decaying machine guns, including a World War II-era German MG-34, a U.S. official familiar with the handover said.
Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, who leads the 1st Marine Division, said his forces collect “better weapons every day walking down the street.”
The quality of the weapons handed in and a firefight that erupted Wednesday morning along the city’s northern fringe — in which an estimated 20 insurgents were killed and three Marines wounded — led Marine commanders to prevent Fallujah residents who had fled the city from returning Thursday. Under the peace deal, the Marines had promised to allow as many as 50 families per day to return to the city.
If the peace deal does not hold, Conway suggested that he would try to move noncombatants out of the city so his Marines could pursue the insurgents with greater force.
“You’ve got tens of thousands of innocent people caught in the middle,” he said. “If there was some simple way to remove them from the equation, it wouldn’t take long.”
But Conway said he hoped city leaders, even if they could not compel the insurgents to surrender, would be able to isolate the fighters by encouraging other residents to deprive them of support.
“We’d like to have the good people of Fallujah, who see that their country has a future, to separate themselves from those who have nothing to live for and are here to die fighting the infidels,” he said. “If the negotiators can cause . . . that separation, then we’ll deal with what’s left.”