Instead, the clash that broke out in Al-Fallujah yesterday saw unidentified gunmen fire mortar rounds at the irregular Iraqi force that took control of the streets two months ago. The attack on a camp housing members of the Al-Fallujah Brigade killed 12 soldiers and wounded 10 other people.
The Al-Fallujah Brigade is led by General Muhammad Latif, a former intelligence officer and opponent of Saddam Hussein. The brigade entered Al-Fallujah under a U.S.-supported arrangement to end intense fighting between U.S. forces and insurgents in April. Under the deal, Latif was allowed to recruit former members of Saddam Hussein's army, as well as insurgents, to restore order.
Al-Fallujah has been largely quiet since the 2,000-strong brigade deployed. U.S. forces pulled back and have not sought to patrol regularly inside the city. Shops have reopened, and normal commercial life has resumed. But yesterday's attack shows that, despite the calm, Al-Fallujah may be far from fully stabilized.
Much about the shelling remains confused, including whether it was deliberate. One member of the Al-Fallujah Brigade told the Associated Press that he thought the attack had targeted U.S. forces, but missed. However, Reuters reported that no U.S. soldiers were in the area at the time.
The attack presents Latif with the first major test of his ability to confront an enemy in Al-Fallujah after a warm welcome when the Al-Fallujah Brigade was formed. The welcome came not only from the populace but also from anti-U.S. fighters, despite Latif's promises to cooperate with tough coalition demands. The demands included collecting and turning over the insurgents' heavy weapons and helping to capture or kill any foreign militants in the city.
Upon taking command, Latif sought to chart a middle course between condemning the anti-U.S. brutality that sparked the April fighting and supporting the right of Al-Fallujah residents to protect themselves against U.S. military action.
Speaking of the mutilation of four U.S.-employed contractors by a mob in Al-Fallujah in March -- the act that prompted the U.S. military operation in April -- Latif said: "The people of Al-Fallujah should take pride in the fact that the mutilation was condemned by its clerics and from every [mosque] pulpit, because mutilation is prohibited by Islam, and those who perpetrated this act are not from Al-Fallujah. The action had prompted a reaction, and the people of Al-Fallujah defended their city, and a large number of innocent people were killed."
But Latif said his force was not "neutral" and would protect Al-Fallujah residents from further bloodshed. "We are not neutral. We consider ourselves part of Al-Fallujah, and we will stay here, defending and protecting the women and children of Al-Fallujah," he said.
During the time Latif has controlled security in Al-Fallujah, he has largely stayed out of the news. However, U.S. officials have told reporters privately that he has yet to collect and turn over any substantial numbers of heavy weapons, as planned. The Al-Fallujah Brigade leader also has said there are no foreign militants in the city to arrest.
Now, the attacks on Latif's forces raise two key questions.
One is whether yesterday's shelling signals the beginning of a concentrated campaign against the brigade and, if so, who leads it. At the moment, there are no clear suspects, but the Al-Fallujah Brigade -- which is largely made up of former Ba'athists -- is reported to have difficult relations with hard-line Sunni clerics and militants who wield great local influence.
The French news agency AFP recently reported that the hard-line leaders "have overwhelmed [Latif's] security forces...and instituted their own harsh brand of Islamic law that includes public floggings for alcohol merchants."
The second question is whether, if the attacks continue, the Al-Fallujah Brigade will have to call on U.S. forces for assistance. Any involvement of U.S. forces would risk sparking widespread new fighting in Al-Fallujah, just weeks before the U.S. handover of power in Baghdad on 30 June, and pose a major challenge for Iraq's fledgling sovereign government.
After yesterday's attack on Latif's forces, some 15 U.S. tanks reportedly deployed on the outskirts of the city, but later withdrew.
AFP reported that U.S. Marines also blocked the eastern and southern entrances to Al-Fallujah, while inside the city armed men gathered in the streets as if bracing for an attack. However, by nightfall tensions had eased and a Marine spokesman, Major T.V. Johnson, told reporters, "We are not conducting any offensive operations in Fallujah."
U.S. and Iraqi officials are closely watching events in Al-Fallujah, partly because the turnover of security there to a locally based force is widely seen as a model for how the new Iraqi government might deal with future insurgencies.
Many of the leaders of the incoming Iraqi government supported the creation of the Al-Fallujah Brigade as a peaceful "Iraqi solution," distinct from Washington's approach of trying to crush insurgencies with massive military force.
U.S. commanders -- who retain responsibility for Iraq's security after 30 June -- have said they regard the Al-Fallujah solution as an experiment that deserves support. But they also say they reserve the right to revert to force if the local approach fails.