US Marines being Fallujah pullout

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The Independent Online

US Marines withdrew today from positions in the southeast of Fallujah and civilians began returning to this embattled city as US commanders met with local representatives to work out details of a deal to lift the month-long siege.

US Marines withdrew today from positions in the southeast of Fallujah and civilians began returning to this embattled city as US commanders met with local representatives to work out details of a deal to lift the month-long siege.

If the deal is finalised, it would effectively turn over control of the city to a 1,100-member force under the command of an Iraqi general who was once part of Saddam Hussein's feared Republican Guard.

One possible sticking point could be a US demand for insurgents to turn over those responsible for the March 31 killing and mutilation of four American contract workers, whose bodies were burned and dragged through the streets. That triggered the siege of Fallujah.

However, the United States has been under intense pressure from the United Nations, its international partners and its Iraqi allies to end the bloodshed, in which hundreds of Iraqi civilians are believed to have died.

The commander of the proposed force, Maj. Gen. Jassim Mohammed Saleh, a veteran of Saddam's Republican Guard, met with tribal leaders in a mosque this morning. He wore his uniform from the former Iraqi military with his general's insignia.Saleh later left the city in a convoy for a meeting with US commanders. One member of his entourage could be seen waving an Iraqi flag from the car as it drove from the city.

"Fallujah residents have chosen Maj. Gen. Jassim Mohammed Saleh to form and lead a unit that will be in charge of protecting the city," said Iraqi Brig. Gen. Shakir al-Janabi, who expects to be part of the new force. "Our force will handle the security issue today in cooperation with Iraqi police."

Capt. Ziad Khalas of the Iraqi security forces said Iraqi police and paramilitary forces expected to enter the city later today.

As negotiations continued, one of three battalions of US Marines packed up and withdrew from most of its positions in an industrial zone in the southern area of the city. US military guards permitted civilian cars to enter the city after undergoing searches.

The new Iraqi force, made up of former Iraqi soldiers and officers, was expected to take a portion of the Marines' cordon of the city later Friday and begin patrolling guerrilla-held portions of Fallujah soon after, US military officials said.

In an apparent move to help the Fallujah negotiations, US authorities yesterday released the imam of the city's main mosque, Sheik Jamal Shaker Nazzal, an outspoken opponent of the US occupation who was arrested in October.

Marines in the southern industrial zone began packing up their gear yesterday in preparation for a withdrawal. They also broke down earthen berms and other security barriers. But the timing of a pullback is likely to depend on talks Friday between US commanders and Fallujah representatives.

Despite the negotiations, skirmishes continued between Marines and guerrillas.Three F/A-18 Hornets flying off the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in the Gulf dropped three 500-pound bombs yesterday on targets in the Fallujah area, Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Danny Hernandez said.

Witnesses reported rockets fired into the Golan neighbourhood, a bastion of the insurgency, and two houses were on fire. Marines and guerrillas have clashed repeatedly in the northern district since Monday.

The Fallujah force is expected to include former Iraqi police and soldiers including gunmen who fought against the Americans, particularly ex-soldiers disgruntled over losing their jobs when the United States disbanded the old Iraqi army.

But the new force would not include "hardcore" insurgents or Islamic militants holed up in the city, a Marine officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Many of the guerrillas in Fallujah are believed to be former members of Saddam's regime or military.

US Marines encircled the city of 200,000 on 5 April. Hospital officials said more than 600 Iraqis, many of them civilians, were killed in the fighting along with eight US Marines. But the figures were disputed by Iraq's health ministry and an exact toll was not known.

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