30 April 2004 -- U.S. Marines reportedly have begun pulling back from the southern part of the Iraqi city of Al-Fallujah, where they have been holding positions for the last three weeks.
The withdrawal from the restive Sunni city's southern industrial zone comes after U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne said yesterday that the military had reached a "tentative" agreement on handing over security duties in the city to a new Iraqi force.
In what appears to be a retreat from the United States' "de-Ba'athification" policy, one of Saddam Hussein's former generals, Jassem Muhammad al-Saleh, will reportedly lead the force. Television footage today showed crowds cheering al-Saleh as he traveled in an automobile at the edge of the city.
"We have now begun forming a new emergency military force to help the forces of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and the Iraqi police in completing the mission of imposing security and stability in Al-Fallujah without the need for the American army, which the people of Al-Fallujah reject," Reuters quoted al-Saleh as saying.
However, the United States has not officially confirmed the handover, with Byrne yesterday saying only that the agreement was "tentative," and U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz saying yesterday in Washington that there was no deal yet.
Al-Saleh met with tribal leaders at a mosque in the city, and later left for meetings with U.S. commanders.
In a possible effort to ease those negotiations, U.S. authorities yesterday released the imam of the city's main mosque, Sheikh Jamal Shaker Nazzal, who has opposed the U.S. occupation and who was arrested in October.
The U.S. authorities are reportedly seeking assurances that the perpetrators of a brutal killings on 31 March of four U.S. civilian contractors will be handed over.
Marines surrounded Al-Fallujah at the beginning of April after those attacks. Some 1,500 insurgents are believed to be sheltering in the city. Doctors say about 600 people have been killed in the fighting.
U.S. forces have also surrounded the Shi'a holy city of Al-Najaf, where radical anti-coalition Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is holed up with his militia.
Al-Sadr told worshippers at the main mosque in the Al-Najaf suburb of Al-Kufa today that news of the U.S. handover in Al-Fallujah is evidence that the United States is "trying to reintegrate the Ba'athists. It proves the Americans hate the Iraqi people."