Lieutenant-General James Conway, the top Marine commander in Iraq, warned insurgents yesterday that they have "days, not weeks" to respect a truce and hand over their heavy weaponry or face a renewed offensive.
Suggesting that the truce brokered on 19 April was near collapse, Conway said that the quantity and quality of weaponry surrendered so far was insufficient, composed mostly of rusty mortar shells, dud grenades, and other useless arms. He said his forces collect "better weapons every day walking down the street."
U.S. commanders are concerned about the political costs of having to conquer Al-Fallujah by force and how those images would play on Arab television.
Conway made his remarks just hours after Marines and insurgents traded fire in fighting on the outskirts of the city in the latest breach of the tattered truce.
He urged local leaders to push for a solution to the standoff with the some 2,000 insurgents, believed to be a mix of foreign fighters -- mainly from Syria and Yemen -- and native militants, including members of Saddam Hussein's former Special Republican Guard.
In Baghdad, U.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the deputy commander of coalition military operations in Iraq, told a news briefing yesterday that the ability of Al-Fallujah's local leaders to hold sway over the insurgents will determine whether the standoff is resolved peacefully.
"It's clearly the desire of the coalition at this time that we try to attempt a peaceful resolution to the situation in Fallujah, to avoid any further bloodshed, to avoid any further damage, to avoid another fight -- which can be avoided if those leaders show leadership and go back and persuade the people that are holding their city hostage, that this is the best deal that they are going to get," Kimmitt said.
Conway expressed doubts about the ability of local leaders to rein in the various groups fighting in Al-Fallujah.
Meanwhile, Marine commanders are reportedly pulling in reinforcements from western Iraq to build an Al-Fallujah force of more than 3,500. Marines are also conducting raids in the city's suburbs to kill or capture fighters and dry up support for them.
But Conway said U.S. commanders are concerned about the political costs of having to conquer the city by force and how those images would play on Arab television.
Iraqi officials have said a peaceful outcome has grown more elusive in part because the U.S. offensive earlier this month generated backlash across Iraq and cast the Sunni bastion as the "Iraqi Alamo" -- a reference to a 19th-century battle in Texas that is a symbol of courageous, if doomed, resistance.
Local doctors say that more than 600 Iraqis were killed during the initial Marine crackdown in Al-Fallujah launched on 5 April, after four American security men working for a private contractor were killed and mutilated there on 31 March.
Conway yesterday denied that the Al-Fallujah offensive was a reaction to those killings, saying the coalition was seeking to win over the city before they were killed. "Some people have called our operations in Fallujah retaliatory in nature," Conway said. "I'd like to address that. Prior to the brutal deaths of the four security contractors in Fallujah, Marines were already busy making our presence known in the area."
Conway suggested that if the truce collapses, he would seek to move noncombatants out of Al-Fallujah so that the Marines could attack the insurgents with greater force.
The city of some 300,000 people has been a bastion of Sunni insurgency for the past year.
Anger deepened when U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer dissolved Saddam's armed forces last May and sacked thousands of public-sector workers in a drive to cleanse Iraq of its Ba'athist past. About 400,000 Iraqis lost their jobs.
Washington now says it will restore some purged officers and senior officials from Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime in an overhaul of the "de-Ba'athification" policy -- provided they are untainted by Saddam's rule.
Bremer explained the shift today in a televised speech to Iraqis.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the review could let some former Baathists join an interim Iraqi government being put together by the United Nations ahead of a planned transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis on 30 June.