U.S. Marines began pulling back Friday from this violence-wracked city in preparation for handing over responsibility for pursuing insurgents to a new militia headed by former Iraqi army officers under a deal brokered by the top Marine general in Iraq.
Broadcast TV footage Friday morning showed some Marines packing up supplies, bulldozing barricades and rolling up barbed wire while a former Iraqi officer, clad in his old uniform, was being greeted by cheering crowds waving the Iraqi flag in the town.
The Associated Press quoted witnesses as saying that one of three battalions of U.S. Marines had mostly departed its positions in an industrial zone in the southern portion of the city.
The Reuters news service quoted a former officer of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard saying he was forming a military unit to stabilize Fallujah in agreement with besieging U.S. forces.
Jasim Mohamed Saleh, told Reuters “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 Fallujah without the need for the American army, which the people of Fallujah reject,” Saleh said.
The surprise agreement in Fallujah, which was authorized by Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, is intended to give more responsibility to Iraqis for subduing the city while attempting defuse tensions by pulling Marines back from front-line positions. But some U.S. military and civilian officials privately expressed concern that Conway’s strategy involves too hasty a retreat and relies too heavily on Iraqis whose combat skills and allegiances have not been fully examined.
After word of the agreement made its way though Fallujah Thursday, insurgents resumed firing on Marines, some of whom were preparing to depart. The exchange of fire prompted commanders to summon airstrikes, and Navy fighter jets dropped at least three 500-pound bombs on the city.
It is not clear whether Conway conveyed the terms of the deal to his superiors in Baghdad and at the Pentagon, or even to leaders of the U.S. occupation authority. One person familiar with the deal said it took senior U.S. military and civilian officials in Baghdad by surprise. Because of the apparent lack of consultation, some officials said elements of the agreement, particularly the speedy troop withdrawal, may be tempered by the Pentagon or by the U.S. Central Command, which is in charge of operations in Iraq.
Can you say “relieved of command,” boys and girls? I know you can.
The NYT version of the story is less emphatic about what’s happening:
United States military commanders here moved to loosen their siege of this city on Thursday, proposing to turn over the task of ending a fierce anti-American insurgency to a new force of Iraqi soldiers, led by officers once loyal to Saddam Hussein.
The plan seemed tentative at best, with conflicting statements from commanders here and military officials in Washington.
In answer to a question about whether Falluja was a decisive battle, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” “Well, there’s no question that, for success in Iraq, you can’t have a city taken over by a bunch of terrorists and the former regime elements and have that persist over a sustained period of time.”
This is a baffling move–if indeed the move is being made as described by WaPo. While I understand the rationale–putting an Iraqi face on the security force might lessen hostility among the noncombatants–there’s nothing in the last twelve years of Iraqi history to indicate that these people will actually fight when it gets tough. Turning over the most critical ongoing operation to a hastily formed, ragtag military force whose motivation and loyalty is dubious is just absurd. The idea that a Marine 3-star would decide to do that on his own is unfathomable.