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New Iraqi Force Takes Over Al-Fallujah Checkpoints

1 May 2004-- A new Iraqi force set to maintain order in Al-Fallujah has taken control of some checkpoints around the restive central city as U.S. Marines have pulled back under a security deal.

The head of the new force, ex-Republican Guard commander General Jasim Mohammed Salih, shook hands at one checkpoint with commander of the 1st Marine Regiment Colonel John Toolan as the handover took place.

The new Iraqi force is due to number about 1,000 troops, many of them former soldiers from the Al-Fallujah area. Their deployment comes after U.S. Marines encircling Al-Fallujah have engaged in fierce fighting with insurgents for three weeks following the murder and mob mutilation of four Western security contractors.

U.S. Central Command chief General John Abizaid said yesterday the new Iraqi force will be under coalition command.

"What we have there is an opportunity, and not necessarily an agreement. The opportunity is to build an Iraqi security force from former elements of the army that will work under the command of coalition forces," Abizaid said.

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Rita said General Saleh had been vetted and U.S. officials have confidence in him.

U.S. officials say American forces are not withdrawing from Al-Fallujah but are repositioning and they will continue operations to have insurgents in Al- Fallujah turn over heavy weaponry.

U.S. Army Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt emphasized the new Iraqi force -- about 1,000 former soldiers called the Al-Fallujah Brigade -- will be under the "full operative control" of the U.S. Marines.

In Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush said coalition forces are making progress in bringing stability to Iraq despite continued violence.

About 130 U.S. soldiers were killed in combat in April in Iraq. It was the bloodiest month for U.S. forces since the invasion in March 2003.