Prague, 20 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. and Iraqi representatives have agreed on a preliminary plan for a full cease-fire in the embattled town of Al-Fallujah. After three days of indirect talks, U.S. military officials agreed they would call off offensive operations at the town provided that local leaders can persuade insurgents there to hand over their heavy weapons to Iraqi police.
The accord tasks a seven-man leadership council in Al-Fallujah with convincing the fighters in the town to participate. The chief spokesman in Iraq for the U.S.-led coalition, Dan Senor, described the disarmament obligations of the fighters in Al-Fallujah.
"The parties agreed to call on citizens and groups to immediately turn in all illegal weapons. Illegal weapons are defined as mortars, [rocket propelled grenade launchers], machine-guns, sniper rifles, [improvised explosive device-] making materials, grenades, and surface-to-air missiles and all associated ammunition. Those who give up their weapons voluntarily will not be prosecuted for weapons violations," Senor said.
"It is worth noting that the intelligence services of some of the coalition forces believe there are foreign fighters there, but that the hard core of the opposition is actually composed of former Iraqi service personnel who have received their training from the Iraqi Army."
In return, Senor said, up to 50 Iraqi families will be allowed to return to Al-Fallujah each day. Also, sick or injured Iraqis will have a chance to receive treatment at hospitals in Al-Fallujah. But Senor stressed that any delays on disarmament by the insurgents will cause the deal to collapse.
"We've been very clear that time is running out. There is only so much longer we can continue this process before we have to re-engage and reinitiate operations," Senor said.
Senor says the coalition also wants to see Iraqi investigations launched as soon as possible into criminal acts committed in Al-Fallujah in recent weeks -- including the killing and mutilation of four U.S. contractors on 31 March and an attack on an Iraqi police station in February.
The deputy commander of coalition military operations in Iraq, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, also has warned that U.S. Marines will resume military operations if the insurgents fail to meet the disarmament obligations of yesterday's agreement.
So far, the cease-fire is shaky but appears to be holding. Kimmitt says attacks against coalition forces have decreased significantly in the past two days.
But as with a series of earlier, unofficial cease-fires announced in the Sunni stronghold since the U.S. launched a major assault there two weeks ago, some fighters continued to attack U.S. positions overnight.
Reports say some of the thousands of civilians who fled fighting in Al-Fallujah earlier this month were starting to trickle back today. But although a few displaced civilians were allowed to walk back to the town, Marine checkpoints were still turning away vehicles.
More than 600 Iraqis -- including many women, children, and elderly people -- have been reported killed in the fighting. But the U.S. military says it is impossible to verify the figure.
Nearly 100 U.S. soldiers have died in combat in Iraq since the start of April.
Meanwhile, Iraqi police who are to collect weaponry in Al-Fallujah have confirmed that they are preparing to re-enter the town. At a U.S. military base near Al-Fallujah today, a Reuters correspondent spoke to an unnamed Iraqi police commander who was training his officers for the mission:
"The police are going to enter the city [of Al-Fallujah] and efforts are underway to facilitate the return of families. I think that two families have already been allowed into the city. Negotiations are going on to facilitate the return of families and there are no problems," the police commander said.
Some experts are questioning whether the fighters in Al-Fallujah will be willing to surrender their weapons. Ian Kemp, the editor of the London-based publication "Jane's Defense Weekly," told RFE/RL today that the disarmament effort is unlikely to succeed.
"It seems highly unlikely that the militant groups are actually going to turn over their weapons. There's been no incentive for the militant groups to actually come forward and disarm. So it seems the repeated threat of military action is not going to compel these groups to disarm," Kemp said.
Even if some fighters participate, Kemp says it will be difficult for the U.S.-led coalition to confirm how many weapons remain.
"One of the difficulties for the coalition is [that] they have no idea how extensive the holding of weapons are. During the Saddam regime, small arms in particular -- and that includes such things as rocket-propelled grenades -- were very widely distributed," Kemp said. "And, of course, it is these rocket-propelled grenades [and] artillery ammunition being used to create improvised explosive devices that really concern the coalition. So long as that weaponry is widely distributed or hidden, it is always going to pose a risk to the security forces [whether they are Americans or Iraqi police.]"
Kemp said any kind of local cease-fire deal in Iraq would seem to be at odds with the overall U.S. strategy of "defeating and disarming" militants. But he acknowledged that the Al-Fallujah deal would be in line with that strategy as long as fighters actually hand in their weapons.
Kemp also says intelligence sources suggest most of the anti-coalition fighters are former members of Hussein's military rather than foreign terrorists.
"It is worth noting that the intelligence services of some of the coalition forces believe there are foreign fighters there, but that the hard core of the opposition is actually composed of former Iraqi service personnel who have received their training from the Iraqi Army. They might have been in other elements of the security forces at the time that Hussein was overthrown. But really, these former Iraqi security service personnel actually constitute the hard core of the resistance movement. And the sort of weapons that they are using, the sort of tactics they are using, would be consistent with that sort of military training," Kemp said.
Hachem Hassani, a Sunni Muslim politician who represented the Iraqi Governing Council in the Al-Fallujah negotiations, says he agrees with Kemp's assessment.
Hassani, who has traveled to the town every day during the past week, says most of the people attacking U.S. Marine positions are residents of Al-Fallujah rather than foreign fighters. Thus, Hassani concludes, it is possible that local officials could have enough influence to calm the situation.