News and opinions on situation in Iraq
02/05/04 Saddam General in Falluja Questions U.S. Demands   By Fadel Badran

Only two days after U.S. forces entrusted General Jasim Mohamed Saleh with restoring order in Falluja, the former member of Saddam's feared Republican Guard dismissed U.S. insistence over the presence of foreign fighters in the city.

  FALLUJA, Iraq – The general from Saddam Hussein's army put in charge of the volatile city of Falluja challenged his U.S. backers Sunday, saying they were wrong to say foreign Islamic guerrillas were behind an insurgency there.

  The American public, dismayed by a rising body count in Iraq in the midst of a presidential election campaign, had better news when the U.S. military reported the escape of civilian truck driver Thomas Hamill, held hostage by men who threatened to kill him unless the siege of Falluja was lifted.

  Only two days after U.S. forces entrusted General Jasim Mohamed Saleh with restoring order in Falluja, the former member of Saddam's feared Republican Guard dismissed U.S. insistence over the presence of foreign fighters in the city.

  ”There are no foreign fighters in Falluja,” Saleh told Reuters in his home town, which was loyal to Saddam.

  After the bloodiest month for U.S. forces since they invaded Iraq in March last year, the respite from the siege of Falluja is also welcome in Washington but U.S. officials are still unsure of the general's past and his present motives.

  U.S. officers say some of his men may have fought against them last month. They also say foreign Islamist gunmen, some with possible links to al Qaeda, are fighting in Falluja.

  For a second day, former Iraqi soldiers on patrol in the town turned a blind eye to gunmen celebrating “victory” over U.S. Marines. The U.S. forces pulled back from siege positions after a month-long stalemate and gave the general a few days to put down an insurgency they say involves hundreds of foreigners.

  But U.S. officials insist 200 or more foreigners may be among the 2,000 or so guerrillas battling their troops since early April. “We stick to our view that 15-20 percent of the guerrillas in Falluja are foreigners,” said an official of the U.S.-led occupation authority in Baghdad.

  Some Iraqis Dismayed

  U.S. commanders stressed that if Saleh's Falluja Brigade of up to 1,200 men failed in a few days to ensure the handover of heavy weapons in the city and the death or capture of foreign militants, then the Marines were poised to go in and do it.

  ”If this collapses we are absolutely prepared to do this by force of arms,” one senior U.S. officer said.

  Kurds, Shi'ite Muslims and others who suffered under Saddam criticized the military for cutting a deal which U.S. commanders say averted an all-out assault on the Sunni city of 300,000.

  Shi'ite members of Iraq's Governing Council accused the new Iraqi commanders in Falluja of having taken part in the bloody suppression of the Shi'ite uprising against Saddam following the Gulf War of 1991.

  Saleh himself played down his own position in Saddam's Baath party regime and said he left the Republican Guard before becoming an infantry general. But a senior Shi'ite politician said he had also been a general in the Guard itself.

  A U.S. official said rank would not necessarily exclude anyone from a role in the new Iraqi forces, although another official in the Iraq administration said the policy of excluding senior figures of Saddam's regime remained “rock solid.”

  Hostage Freed

  Truck driver Hamill was free after three weeks as a hostage.

  ”It looked like it was an escape,” Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said, adding that U.S. patrol found Hamill south of Tikrit, Saddam's home town and a hotbed of anti-U.S. insurgents.

  ”Preliminary reports that we have would indicate that he had escaped from a building, when he saw the American forces identified himself and was subsequently recovered,” Kimmit said.

  Mississippi farmer Hamill, working as a driver in Iraq, was captured on April 9 when insurgents ambushed his convoy, killing several soldiers and civilians.

  U.S.-led forces are also struggling to impose their will in another flashpoint town, the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, south of the capital, where radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has taken refuge with thousands of his Mehdi Army militia.

  Suspected Shi'ite militiamen fired mortars and grenades at U.S. forces overnight. There were no reports of casualties.

  Two U.S. soldiers were killed near the southern city of Amara Saturday when their convoy came under fire. Earlier in the day, six British soldiers and an Iraqi policeman were wounded in a clash with some of Sadr's forces near the city.

  Sadr is wanted by U.S. forces and Iraqi judges for the murder of a rival Shi'ite cleric a year ago. His followers rose up in several towns and cities last month after one of his aides was arrested for an alleged role in the murder.

  The uprising has largely died down but his militia still controls Najaf, nearby Kufa and Kerbala. Representatives of Najaf's tribes and the police chief held talks Saturday with Sadr's aides in an attempt to find a peaceful solution. But a Sadr aide held out little hope of success…

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