|News and opinions on situation in Iraq|
|02/05/04||Marines turn over control of Fallujah to Iraqi general once loyal to Hussein by Colin Freeman|
A SAGA OF US DESPERATION & DEFEAT: MARINES PAY THE ENEMY TO SAVE THEIR ASSES IN FALLUJAH — NOW MAY FIRE HIM…
Chronicle Foreign Service
Baghdad — In the old days, just the sight of his drab green uniform was enough to strike fear into dissident Iraqi hearts.
As a commander of Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard, Maj. Gen. Jassim Mohammed Saleh was part of the formidable army that put down insurrections. Now the ex-Baathist is back in uniform — this time for the people who a year ago were his enemies.
In a remarkable case of poacher-turned-gamekeeper, Saleh has been handpicked by the U.S. military to lead a new 1,000-strong Iraqi force to quell the insurgency in the city of Fallujah.
As U.S. Marines rolled up their barbed-wire blockades of Fallujah on Saturday, Saleh's new forces fanned out and imposed a cordon around nearly the entire southern half of the city. The Marines were pulling back to set up a second cordon about 5 miles back.
On Friday, the 49-year-old general met with U.S. commanders while clad in his old military fatigues — garb that he last wore in front of Hussein's brutal son Qusai, who was head of the Republican Guard.
The decision by Marines in Fallujah to cede power to a former regime figure surprised officials in Washington and Baghdad. But according to Marine commanders on the ground, political niceties have been sacrificed to battlefield pragmatism.
After three weeks of fierce fighting in which up to 800 people have died, the Marines have reluctantly decided they have neither the local knowledge nor credibility to tackle the 2,000 or so militants still holding out there. Saleh's force, known as the Fallujah Protective Army, is “an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem,” according to Marine Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne. “They know the populace. They know the terrain.”
But while the move might assuage those who feared Fallujah would be leveled, the decision to reactivate Saleh has provoked discontent among some Iraqis. Although he apparently is not on the list of Baathist war criminals, he was still a part of the old, discredited regime.
“The U.S. has slipped into the swamp in Iraq, and now they are trying to hang on any rope to get them out,” said one former Iraqi army colonel who used to know Saleh. “They do not care whether he was in the Baath Party or not. All they are interested in is suppressing the militants and rebels. What message does this send out? That the Americans have no principles — they just want to keep their own asses safe.”
Marine Lt. Gen. James Conway, the top U.S. commander in Fallujah, told a news conference on Saturday that the new Fallujah Protective Army probably will include some former army soldiers who fought American forces over the past month. He promised, however, that anyone who has “blood on their hands” would not be allowed to stay in the force.
By the occupation's previous criteria, Saleh is unfit to be in charge of Iraq's security.
He was raised in the towns around Fallujah that provided much of the manpower for Hussein's army and security services. He still sports the fat walrus mustache that was standard wear for Hussein's senior military acolytes, and he was also a level two Baath Party member — the second highest category, designating a position of power and privilege normally earned by paying more than mere lip service to the former president.
Iraq's civilian administrator, Paul Bremer, announced two weeks ago he was scrapping his ban on top Baath Party members participating in Iraqi public life. However, sorting out who was a real villain and who was merely following Hussein's orders is not easy, especially in the military. Many Iraqi commanders who carried out brutal operations are still widely respected figures today, while those who applied a personal gusto to their work, like Hussein's cousin “Chemical” Ali Hassan al-Majid, are reviled.
Occupation commanders acknowledged Saturday that they really have no idea which category Saleh falls into.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one senior U.S. Army general said, “We don't know if he was a level two Baath Party member — we really know very little about these guys as of yet. They introduced themselves to the Marine commanders in Fallujah last week and said they had influence in the area that might be useful.
“It is true that there is some due diligence to be done on these guys before we start using them. But on the other hand, we cannot make endless checks, as the situation does not allow time for that.”
Saleh's former military colleagues say investigation will yield a clean bill of health. “He was a tough guy, but a gentleman, who was a general because he was properly trained, not because he was close to Saddam,” said one.
They acknowledge that did not keep him from doing Hussein's dirty work. In 1991, when Iraq's Shiite community rebelled in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, Saleh was among those ordered to crush the revolt by all means necessary. He was reportedly stationed in Amara, a marshland town that saw fierce fighting between the Republican Guard and Iranian-backed guerrilla forces. While his personal role is not known, others who served in the region speak of villages razed and insurgents executed. Most of the mass graves scattered across Iraq's Shiite heartland also date from that time.
Some now speculate that Saleh may bring the same uncompromising methods to Fallujah. “The Iraqi armies do not f — about,” said one colonel. “They will just shoot any Iraqi who does not tell them where the insurgents are. It is the kind of methods the Americans would love to use, but cannot be seen to.”
But others say his tactic will be to make friends, rather than kill enemies. “He has a lot of influence with many powerful sheikhs around Fallujah, and this is why he has been picked for the job,” said another. “He will tell them to get rid of the insurgents and tell everybody else go back to living a peaceful life.”
If Saleh's forces are not up to the task, they could get massacred, said the U.S. general during his off-the-record briefing. “It is a big risk, and his men have impressed our Marine commanders so far, but we do not really know what they will do when they get inside the city. They will have Marines backing them and advising, but yes, there could be problems. On the other hand, they may be able to solve things.”
Either way, Saleh faces one task that no amount of threatening or cajoling may be able to pull off. As part of their deal to withdraw from Fallujah, U.S. forces are insisting that local leaders hand over those responsible for killing and mutilating the four U.S. military contractors whose deaths sparked the beginning of the siege a month ago. So far, the locals are flatly opposed.