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Iraqi Unit Determined to Rout Insurgents, U.S. Says

Marines will ensure the Fallouja Brigade avoids extreme tactics as well as a 'softshoe effort.'

May 02, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

FALLOUJA, Iraq — The Iraqi army unit recruited to replace Marines in efforts to rid this city of insurgents has an aggressive plan to eliminate the foreign fighters who have played a leading role in battling the U.S. forces, the top Marine general in Iraq said Saturday.

"They understand our view: These people must be killed or captured," Lt. Gen. James Conway, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, told reporters. "They haven't flinched."

Conway said Marines would monitor the progress of the Iraqi armed forces' Fallouja Brigade to make sure its members do not engage in extreme tactics or try only a "softshoe effort."

The leading general of the new force will answer to Conway. If he becomes dissatisfied with the Iraqi general's progress toward eliminating the insurgents, "we will have a man-to-man discussion," Conway said.

"In the end, either he will [eliminate foreign fighters], or we will find someone who can," Conway said.

One goal of the new unit, he said, is to ensure that Westerners can venture into the city without being shot.

Although Marine battalions are moving to sites outside the city, Conway bristled at suggestions that they were engaged in either a withdrawal or retreat. "Both of those are dirty words in the vocabulary of a Marine."

In a surprising turn of events, Marines on Thursday indicated that four former Iraqi generals had agreed to organize a military unit to assume responsibility for bringing peace to this volatile city west of Baghdad in the so-called Sunni Triangle region. The Marines had been engaged in almost daily skirmishes since they surrounded the city April 5.

During a news conference at his command post here, Conway gave the most detailed account yet of how the arrangement was cobbled together. Secrecy was paramount, he said.

Conway also provided details about the two men running the new Iraqi battalion: one a former general under Saddam Hussein, the other a former director of Iraqi military intelligence under Hussein who had fallen out of favor and left the country.

The latter, Mohammed Latif, met Thursday with Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, who commands the 1st Marine Division, in a nondescript building on the city's outskirts to seal the deal.

When they emerged from that meeting, Latif and Mattis shook hands and pledged mutual cooperation. "We will make it work, you and I," Mattis told Latif.

As Marine battalions moved outside the city, hundreds of soldiers for the new brigade began entering Fallouja. Some began patrolling Saturday, amid cheers from the public. Officials hope more than 1,000 troops will be in the new force by midweek.

Conway said the new soldiers were being recruited from the former Iraqi army, newly formed Iraqi security forces, and even from among the youths in Fallouja who had joined with the insurgents to fight the Marines.

Asked whether any fighters who had opened fire on Marines would be in the new force, Conway said he was unsure. But he described some of those who might be hired as "elder sons" who had stayed in Fallouja to guard their families' homes against the Westerners.

The U.S. will provide weaponry and equipment to the new force, Conway said. But the Iraqi generals declined to have the U.S. pay the salaries of their soldiers, which Conway took as an encouraging sign of national pride returning to the former officers.

"I have enjoyed working with these people to date," Conway said.

He said Maj. Gen. Jasim Mohammed Saleh, who will command with Latif, was a trained infantry leader who served in Hussein's elite Republican Guard.

Conway said the backgrounds of all four generals were checked before a deal was struck. "They may not be squeaky clean, but they're pretty clean," he said.

Conway said the concept of Iraqi troops taking the lead in providing stability for Fallouja came up in the last few weeks as the former generals contacted U.S. officials and offered to help.

Asked how close the Marines came to launching an assault on the insurgents' stronghold in the city -- a battle that Conway said would have cost the lives of Marines and civilians -- the general said, "At one point, we truly thought we had no option."

Meanwhile Saturday, defense officials reported that a soldier died of wounds from an improvised explosive device in northern Iraq a day earlier. Officials also reported Saturday that two sailors assigned to the Marine forces in Al Anbar province, which includes Fallouja, were killed Friday.

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