FALLOUJA, Iraq — Iraqi troops led by one of Saddam Hussein's former generals began replacing Marines here Friday as a plan to end a near-monthlong siege of this battle-torn city gained momentum.
Former Iraqi Maj. Gen. Jassim Mohammed Saleh, dressed in the uniform of Hussein's Republican Guard, entered Fallouja to cheering crowds, triggering a debate on whether securing the defiant city with an Iraqi force was a masterstroke or a concession that could undermine U.S. control of the country.
"I am very happy to be here. You are truly a friend," Saleh, handpicked to head the new force, told Marine Col. John Toolan. "I look forward to cooperating with the Marines."
The decision to have an Iraqi force patrol Fallouja appeared to be part of an evolving U.S. strategy to end two volatile standoffs -- with Sunni Muslim insurgents here and with Shiite Muslim militants in the holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq.
U.S. occupation authorities have recently made efforts to reach out to the nation's Sunni minority and former members of Hussein's Baath Party -- two marginalized groups in post-Hussein Iraq.
As the deadline nears for transferring sovereignty to Iraqis, U.S. officials appear to be adopting a more flexible strategy, one that attempts to co-opt enemies of the U.S.-led occupation. The hard-line strategy of civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III, who abolished the Iraqi army and sidelined even nominal Baath Party members, has been tempered as a relentless insurgency, feeding on dissatisfaction with the U.S., threatens efforts to rebuild Iraq.
The Bush administration's decision to ask the United Nations for help in crafting a plan for a new Iraqi government underscores how U.S. policy in Iraq has drastically changed course. But clerics and others representing the nation's Shiite majority -- long repressed by Hussein -- are expressing alarm about what some view as Washington's newfound desire to appease the former dictator's loyalists.
With only 60 days before sovereignty is scheduled to be returned to Iraqi officials, U.S. authorities have apparently concluded that it is time for reconciliation and that negotiated settlements to the confrontations in Fallouja and Najaf are a better option than force. There was widespread concern that military action in Fallouja might further alienate an Iraqi population resentful of the occupation.
"As long as we continue to see progress -- albeit some days slower than other days -- we will continue to pursue the peaceful track," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, chief military spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, told reporters Friday.
Iraqi officers met Marine commanders Friday for a "confirmation" briefing on the plan to have Marines withdraw from the city and be replaced by troops of a new unit dubbed the 1st Battalion of the Fallouja Brigade, under Saleh's command.
U.S. forces will equip and arm the battalion, and the Iraqi general will be designated a subordinate commander under Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
The battalion is expected to number between 600 and 1,000 soldiers, largely consisting of troops from the former Iraqi army. Four former Iraqi generals have agreed to help the unit pacify Fallouja.
Hundreds of Iraqi troops are set to report for duty today and Sunday. They will begin their service by manning checkpoints, a military spokesman said.
The turnover appeared to be proceeding at a brisk pace despite U.S. military officials in Baghdad and Washington saying that the deal was tentative and limited in scope -- even as military bulldozers were dismantling barricades and Marines were preparing to leave Fallouja.
"This is not a withdrawal," Kimmitt said. "It's not a retreat."
Still, the new plan -- agreed to Thursday by Marine and Iraqi negotiators -- represents a reversal from the tough military tactics U.S. officials adopted last month when the Marine encirclement of Fallouja began. Three weeks of fighting and broken cease-fires inflicted heavy casualties on Marines, insurgents and civilians.
Many feared a bloodbath in Fallouja if Marines engaged in house-to-house fighting to root out as many as 2,000 insurgents.
Negotiations among the Marines, Fallouja residents, Sunni clerics, U.S. representatives and others resulted in Thursday's deal turning security over to the Iraqi force. Other details of the agreement remained sketchy, but Fallouja participants said U.S. officials have released a prominent imam and a tribal leader whose arrests last year for anti-coalition activities led to protests in Fallouja.
The imam, Sheik Jamal Shaker Nazzal, was said to have returned to his mosque in Fallouja for Friday prayers. Army troops had arrested him on charges of inciting violence against the coalition and sheltering a Yemeni citizen described by the Army as a suspected Al Qaeda operative.