US Marines close to deal for exiting sieged city

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The Independent Online

US Marine commanders and former Iraqi generals appeared close to agreeing a compromise in Fallujah last night under which the Marines would withdraw and be replaced in the besieged city by Iraqi soldiers.

Yesterday, 10 US soldiers were killed, eight of them in the 1st Armoured Division by a bomb in Mahmoudiyah, a town south of Baghdad, bringing the number of US troops killed in action in April to 126. This is higher than the total number killed in the war last year.

Lieutenant-Colonel Brennan Byrne announced a deal under which the Marines would withdraw from Fallujah, after besieging it for almost a month, and be replaced by a 1,100-strong Iraqi army force led by a former general from the old army of Saddam Hussein. Colonel Brennan said the agreement was "tentative" and "finer points" had still to be worked out. Going by the details so far revealed, the deal is a climbdown by the US, which had demanded that heavy weapons and resistance fighters be handed over. It is not clear if it will be accepted by the insurgents who do not appear to have an overall commander but consist of fragmented groups.

Under the plan, the Marines would withdraw and be replaced by the Fallujah Protection Army led by a General Salah, who is believed to be Lieutenant-General Salah Abboud al-Jabbouri, who comes from Fallujah. Under Saddam Hussein, he was governor of Anbar province to which Fallujah belongs.

The new Iraqi force will "have certain advantages we don't", Colonel Byrne said. "One, they're Iraqi. Two, they're local. So, they know the populace, they know the terrain." he added: "The plan is that the whole of Fallujah will be under the control of the FPA." He called the deal "an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem".

It is not clear who will make up the new force. The new Iraqi army has five battalions, one of which mutinied this month when ordered to move to Fallujah. More remarkably, a Marine officer said some of the fighters in Fallujah were expected to be in this new force.

The siege of the city of 300,000 people began on 5 April and rapidly turned into a political disaster for the US. The resistance in the city became a symbol for Iraqi nationalists and television pictures of the bombardment, broadcast across the world, underlined how far President George Bush was mistaken when he announced that major combat in Iraq was over on 1 May last year.

American officials are showing signs of uncertainty about the future of their forces in Fallujah. In Washington, the Pentagon spokesman said "there is no deal that we are aware of". But Marines have started to demolish earth banks they had built for defence during the fighting. Skirmishing continued in other parts of Fallujah.

If the deal does stick, the siege will have proved a serious setback for the US, which set out to avenge the death of four private security men, shot, burnt and hacked to death on 31 March. But the siege of the town, starting on 5 April, was rapidly denounced in Iraq and the rest of the world as smacking of collective punishment with heavy civilian casualties. Several hundred civilians and fighters died. Eight US Marines were killed.

"I can't believe what we have gone through," said Hassan al-Halbousi, 60, who stayed in his house to look after it. "The bombing has terrified me. No one is in the streets. Even the dogs in the city were hunting us because they had no food."

Several Iraqis were killed at a checkpoint out of the city yesterday when US troops riddled their minibus. Car bombs and roadside bombs have inflicted far more casualties than firefights.