US marines announced the end of the bloody, near four-week siege of Fallujah today and will hand the city over to an all-Iraqi force, commanded by one of Saddam Hussein’s generals .
The deal came after intense international pressure on the United States to find a peaceful resolution to the stand-off.
Only last week, American commanders had been threatening to launch an all-out attack on the city to root out Sunni insurgents.
Under a deal reached last night, a new Iraqi force known as the Fallujah Protection Army is to start moving into the Sunni city to impose security on Friday, marine Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne said.
Marine forces will end their siege of Fallujah, pulling back from their positions in and around the city, while the FPA forms a new cordon around it and then moves into the centre, Byrne said.
“The plan is that the whole of Fallujah will be under the control of the FPA,” he said.
The siege, launched on April 5 after the killing and mutilation of four American civilians in Fallujah, killed hundreds of Iraqis, including many civilians, according to hospital sources.
At least eight marines were killed, but a full American casualty count from the battle has not been released.
On the southern edge of Fallujah, marines from 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment began packing up gear today, saying they had been ordered to withdraw from the industrial zone they have held throughout the siege.
Bulldozers flattened a sand barrier that troops had set up along the city’s southern edge.
Byrne said the marines would remain around the Fallujah area, but not in an immediate cordon or inside the city.
The FPA will consist of up to 1,100 Iraqi soldiers led by a former general during Saddam’s Hussein’s regime.
Byrne identified the commander only as General Salah, a former division commander under Saddam. The force will be subordinate to the marine 1st Expeditionary Force.
Many of the guerrillas in Fallujah are thought to be former members of Saddam’s regime or military.
Last week, Iraq’s top US administrator, Paul Bremer, announced that the new Iraqi army would start recruiting top former Saddam-era officers who were not involved in the regime’s crimes.
The moves came after three days of intense violence in Fallujah. The battles increased pressure on the United States to find a resolution to the stand-off.
“Violent military action by an occupying power against inhabitants of an occupied country will only make matters worse,” UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had warned.
“It’s definitely time, time now for those who prefer restraint and dialogue to make their voices heard.”
US troops at the main checkpoint in and out of Fallujah opened fire on a car, killing several Iraqis, but there were differing accounts of the circumstances of the attacks.
Captain James Edge said a car screeched into the razorwire near the main marine checkpoint into Fallujah and gunmen inside opened fire with assault rifles on the Americans.
Troops returned fire with a Humvee-mounted heavy machine gun, killing at least three men in the car, Edge said. A fourth person was wounded but it was not clear if he was in the car or a bystander, Edge said.
An AP reporter, however, saw US soldiers open fire on a pick-up truck at the checkpoint, killing a seven-member family that was trying to flee the city. It was not clear if the accounts referred to separate incidents.
In southern Iraq, witnesses reported that Shiite militiamen clashed this afternoon with US troops at a base in the holy city of Najaf.
There were no immediate details on the extent of the clashes. Earlier in the day, militiamen fired a volley of seven mortars at the base, causing no casualties.