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Monday, April 26, 2004 - Page updated at 10:03 A.M.
U.S. postpones plans for attack in Fallujah
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karl Vick
Senior U.S. military and civilian officials have decided to try to confront a band of hard-core Sunni Muslim insurgents, who have effectively taken over Fallujah, by having Marines conduct patrols in the city alongside Iraqi security forces.
The strategy, reached in consultation with the White House over the weekend, is an effort by U.S. officials to avoid a military incursion that could mean costly urban combat, civilian casualties and the danger of further inciting a wave of retribution strikes outside Fallujah by Iraqis already incensed by reports of civilian deaths inside the besieged city.
"A military solution is not going to be the solution here unless everything else fails," said Maj. Gen. James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, which is responsible for securing Fallujah and other parts of western Iraq.
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief military spokesman in Baghdad, said efforts to deal with the insurgency in Fallujah had shifted to "a political track."
Fallout in Arab world
In Washington, a senior Bush administration official said the decision to rely for now on patrols rather than an attack was based partly on the concern of President Bush's aides about fallout from an invasion in the Arab world.
"It's a situation that calls for precision and some measure of patience not unlimited patience, however," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"You want to be prepared to take strong action on short notice against those who've been identified, and do what's necessary to subdue them. On the other hand, you don't want to misfire prematurely in such a way that you temporarily make the local situation worse and provide images that incite a broader reaction."
Marines put the city west of Baghdad under siege early this month, just days after four American civilian contract workers there were killed by a mob and their bodies mutilated.
The strategy shift is the latest in a series of U.S. policy reversals intended to placate Iraq's Sunnis, a once-powerful minority whose postwar disenfranchisement has fueled attacks on U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces. Last week, the U.S. occupation authority announced it would hire back some senior military officers and teachers who were dismissed by the authority because of membership in former President Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated Baath party.
If Marines patrolling the city are fired upon, Mattis said they would shoot back, reassess the joint patrols and decide if more aggressive military action was warranted.
"If we do not gain control of Fallujah using joint patrols, then we've got to look at other options," he said.
Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne, the commander of a Marine battalion in Fallujah, said he planned to begin joint patrols Thursday, after conducting three days of training for civil-defense troops and police officers. The Marine unit conducting the joint patrol will have air support, he said. Iraqi security forces interviewed in Fallujah yesterday were apprehensive about the idea of patrolling with the Marines, a collaboration several felt would mean a greater risk of attack.
"I don't feel safe because the Americans are not safe," said police Capt. Jassim Mohammed Abid. "They're going to get shot at. They can't guarantee safety for themselves, so how can they guarantee safety for me?"
Some military officials have voiced private skepticism about the patrols, saying they expect the insurgents to fire upon the Marines. "We need to engage them on our own terms," one officer said.
Marine commanders in and around Fallujah had expected to receive orders over the weekend to mount a comprehensive attack on insurgents in the city. Marines believe the insurgents are a combination of foreign fighters, indigenous Islamic extremists and Saddam loyalists. Marine officers estimate there are several hundred to 2,000 insurgents in the city.
Although a group of civic leaders had agreed to a cease-fire with U.S. military commanders and civilian officials on April 19, the local leaders have failed to fulfill a key element of the agreement: getting the insurgents to surrender heavy weapons.
Kimmitt said yesterday the cease-fire was broken 13 times over the previous 24 hours and U.S. forces had surrounded a house and killed 25 insurgents after seeing a man run into the building with a mortar tube.
U.S. military commanders and civilian leaders have also opted to take a go-slow approach in the south with militiamen loyal to a radical Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.
Although U.S. soldiers have mobilized outside the holy city of Najaf, where al-Sadr and many of his militiamen have congregated, Kimmitt said there were "no time lines" for the soldiers to enter the city.
U.S. officials continue to rely on Iraqi interlocutors to persuade al-Sadr to demobilize his illegal militia, whose members have repeatedly attacked U.S. forces and foreign troops stationed in central Iraq. "We would like to obtain a final agreement in Najaf," Kimmitt said.
However, U.S. intelligence officials and local residents said al-Sadr and his militia are strengthening their control here, stockpiling weapons, seizing key religious sites, and arresting or detaining people who challenge him.
In the past two weeks, al-Sadr's followers many rushing to Najaf from Baghdad, Fallujah and other areas of Iraq have fortified their positions in the city and the neighboring town of Kufa, including at Najaf's gold-domed shrine of Imam Ali, one of the most revered mosques in the world, the sources said.
Rival clerics evicted
Al-Sadr's forces have evicted more than 100 rival Shiite clerics and shrine employees, replacing them with their own armed militiamen, who now roam the rooftops and courtyards of the shrine with rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers hung over their shoulders. The cleric's followers also were stockpiling weapons in mosques, schools, graveyards and private houses around the city, according to U.S. intelligence and local residents.
A top U.N. official preached caution.
Najaf "has a lot of history," Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy to Iraq, said in an interview broadcast yesterday on ABC-TV's "This Week" news show.
"Sending the tanks rolling into a place like this, you know, is not the right thing to do. And I think the Americans know that extremely well now."
Material from the Los Angeles Times, Knight Ridder Newspapers and The Associated Press is included in this report.
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