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U.S. Troops Step Back in Fallujah
U.S. Troops Step Back In a Tense Iraqi City
Interim Council Meeting Scheduled in Baghdad
photo: Garbage sits in view of the mayor's office in Fallujah, Iraq, after the facility was vacated by U.S. forces in an effort to show confidence in local police's ability to keep order in the city. (Saurabh Das -- AP)
FALLUJAH, Iraq, July 11 -- U.S. forces have begun vacating encampments in this violent city west of Baghdad, including a municipal office that has become a flash point for anti-American tensions. The move accompanies a bid to quell armed resistance by giving new local police officers more responsibility for targeting gunmen and guarding key installations.
In Baghdad, the U.S.-led occupation authority scheduled a meeting Saturday for about 25 Iraqis selected to participate in an interim governing council that will assume authority over elements of the national bureaucracy and decide certain policy issues, diplomats involved in the process said.
The 25 are expected to declare themselves members of the council at the closed-door meeting -- a formality intended to make the group appear as if it emerged from consultations among Iraqis and was not a creation of the occupation authority, the diplomats said.
The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest political party representing the country's Shiite Muslim majority, agreed today to join the council, removing the last major obstacle to forming a body that U.S. and British officials feel will be representative of Iraqi society.
The council's other members will be announced at a news conference on Sunday, officials said. People taking part in the selection process have said that leaders of the country's largest political parties will be included the group, as well as tribal leaders, religious figures, women, ethnic Kurds and Christians.
In the town of Samarra, a two-hour drive north of Baghdad, attackers fired four mortar rounds at a U.S. military base late Thursday, wounding three soldiers, the Associated Press reported. Early this morning, two mortar rounds were launched into a U.S. base in Ramadi, 60 miles west of the capital. U.S. military officials said there were no injuries or damage to the base. It was the seventh attack on the site in the last 10 days.
The pullout of troops from fixed positions in Fallujah began last week and likely will be completed by next week, said Lt. Col. Eric Wesley, executive officer of the 2nd Brigade of U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which controls the Fallujah area. The process started with the removal of soldiers from electrical substations and schools, people in the city said.
On Thursday afternoon, the brigade conducted its most symbolically significant withdrawal, moving out troops who had been guarding the mayor's office and driving away two M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles parked next to the building. Wesley said the brigade will remove soldiers from 22 locations in and around the city.
The soldiers will be replaced by newly trained Iraqi police officers as well as an armed Iraqi quick-reaction force that Wesley said would be "a cross between meter maids and a SWAT team."
"We want Iraqis to take on greater and greater responsibility" for the city's security, he said.
Wesley said that despite the withdrawals from fixed positions, the brigade would not abandon the city. Soldiers will continue to patrol at all hours of the day, he said, and a fast-response unit will be ready to swoop in should local police need backup.
"We're still committed to Fallujah," he said.
But brigade commanders said they believe that having a less visible presence in the city and ceding more authority to Iraqi police could help to address widespread anti-American sentiments in the city, the scene of repeated attacks over the past several weeks.
The withdrawals have drawn a mixed reaction in the city, with ordinary residents welcoming the move, the mayor's office urging caution and police officers calling for the pullout to proceed faster.
"We're happy to see them go," said Mohsen Kubaisi, a cigarette vendor. "They shouldn't have been here in the first place."
At the mayor's office, municipal employees took a different view, saying they wanted to make sure the local police were sufficiently trained and armed before U.S. troops left key installations. "We support the idea of the soldiers leaving, but we want to be certain our policemen are 100 percent ready," said Karim Aftan, spokesman for the mayor, Taha Bedawi. "The Americans should not leave too soon."
Over at the police station, the few officers on duty said they wanted the 20 Americans who have been guarding the building around the clock to go immediately. On Thursday, about 30 policemen held a protest in front of the mayor's office, threatening to quit if U.S. forces did not leave and allow them to patrol alone.
On Wednesday night, three rocket-propelled grenades were fired at the police station, officers said. And last Saturday, seven police cadets in Ramadi were killed after a bomb planted next to a utility pole exploded during graduation ceremonies. Policemen here said both incidents indicated to them that working with U.S. forces has become increasingly dangerous.
"When they are here, it makes our job worse," said 1st Lt. Nisan Mohammed. "We can do it better without them. If they are not here, nobody will shoot at us."
Mohammed said that if the U.S. soldiers guarding the station, who spent the afternoon in Humvees in the parking lot, did not leave by Saturday, "we will quit working and go home. . . . We will leave the building for the Americans."
A U.S. military officer in Fallujah said he viewed the demand as a negotiating tactic, and he doubted that many officers would quit. The official said the brigade's commanders had planned before the protest to pull most soldiers from the station and keep only a few liaison officers there. The commanders also had planned to stop having U.S. military police accompany Iraqi police on patrols, the officer said.
Wesley called the protest "a very positive sign."
"We need the people of Iraq, the citizens and the leadership, to step up to the plate and assume a leadership role in the transition process," he said, pledging that by the middle of next week the police "will be completely independent in terms of their activity."