When U.S. field commanders in Iraq first began mentioning the name of former Republican Guard General Jassim Muhammad Salih, it appeared Washington was committed to giving him the command of the "Fallujah Brigade."
U.S. field commanders initially described the appointment of Salih as a breakthrough because the former general was from the Al-Fallujah area, known to the population, and was ready to lead a security force of up to 1,100 local former soldiers to restore order in the city.
As Salih himself entered Al-Fallujah late last week with the first several hundred members of the new brigade, many residents and scores of insurgents were reported to give him a warm welcome.
But there were soon signs that decision makers in Washington regarded the arrangements for Al-Fallujah as more tentative than it seemed.
The United States' top military leader, General Richard Myers, who is the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, yesterday faulted the media for, in his words, "very bad" reporting about the military's decisions.
Then, top U.S. officials surprised reporters by saying it was unlikely Salih would lead the Fallujah Brigade but that another former Iraqi general might do so.
That general is Muhammad Latif, a former intelligence officer and native of Baghdad who was an opponent of Saddam Hussein.
Myers told a television news program yesterday that the final decision regarding Latif depends on the results of vetting by U.S. and Iraqi officials.
"The reports of that one general, General Salih, that you've just mentioned -- and there's another general as well, Latif -- are being vetted as we speak by the Iraqi minister of defense in Baghdad, by the Coalition Provisional Authority," Myers said. He added that neither of the two men have been fully vetted, "they have not been placed in command," and "they are not in charge."
Myers also stressed that U.S. Marines have not withdrawn from around Al-Fallujah and remain ready to storm insurgent positions at any time should alternative strategies prove disappointing.
"The Washington Post" reported today that the Pentagon is opting for Latif to lead the Fallujah Brigade while former Republican Guard General Salih could be retained to lead one of the brigade's three battalions.
AP has reported Salih as saying he will have nothing more to do with the brigade.
These developments come as at least three Shi'a members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) in Baghdad objected to news that Washington planned to appoint a former top member of the Saddam regime like Salih to help maintain security.
Shi'a politician Ahmed Chalabi, who has argued to exclude senior members of the former ruling Ba'ath Party from positions of responsibility, said that "we stand strongly against this move because it seriously threatens the security and future of Iraq."
The Shi'a political leaders objected to the fact that Salih commanded a Republican Guard battalion that took part in suppressing the Shi'a revolt against Saddam's regime following the 1991 Gulf War. Some Kurdish leaders have accused Salih of also being involved in suppression of the Kurdish rebellion around the same time.
Analysts say that Washington appears to have taken such reaction in the Shi'a and Kurdish communities into account in looking for a new leader for the Fallujah Brigade. Both the Shi'a and Kurdish communities were dominated by Saddam's Sunni-based regime and at times targeted for persecution.
"There was a fair degree of surprise that somebody who was so closely associated with the old regime...should be brought in," said Tim Garden, a security analyst at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London. "I assume that [U.S. officials] found that his leadership qualities were not as good as they thought they were and they are trying somebody else."
U.S. officials are also reported to have been unhappy with Salih's remarks that there are no foreign fighters in Al-Fallujah. The Fallujah Brigade is to be equipped by the United States, which will demand it both ends the insurgency in the city and roots out a suspected 200 foreign militants.
But Garden said Washington's turnaround raises a new question that can only be answered over the coming days as the Fallujah Brigade deploys.
The question is how effective a former Saddam opponent like Latif can be in quelling unrest in a town like Al-Fallujah -- which prospered under the Saddam regime and is hostile to the U.S.-led occupation and the new order it is creating.
Latif is among a number of generals whom the new Iraqi defense minister has recalled to help reform the New Iraqi Army.
That is in line with a recent decision by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to permit some former military officers and Ba'athist Party members to return to work if they can be shown not to have used their former positions to harm the Iraqi people.