After lengthy negotiations and steady violence in Fallujah, US Marines Thursday struck a deal aimed at ending their siege of the city and permitting a new Iraqi force to assume control. The force, to be called the Fallujah Protective Army, will be led by a Saddam Hussein-era Iraqi general.
US commanders have been seeking a compromise after finding themselves caught between their desire to swiftly wrap up the insurgency and awareness that an all-out offensive on the city would inflame anti-US sentiments. Already across Iraq, Fallujah has become a rallying cry for anti-US elements, as April became the bloodiest month yet for the US occupation.
Observers and American commanders alike are cautious about the prospects that the new Iraqi force will be able - or willing - to quell the insurgency here. Past efforts to turn security over to Iraqis have met with little success. The June 30 handover of sovereignty is a looming deadline.
"We're now trying to find a middle way ... so we can return to Fallujah six weeks from now, without being shot at," says a senior US officer. "It's not about conquering Fallujah. It's about restoring law and order."
"Destroying a city to save it, is not an option," says the officer.
Joint US-Iraqi patrols were meant to begin Friday, and commanders suggested that some forward US Marine positions may be pulled back starting Friday from the flashpoint northwest sector, scene of most recent fighting against insurgents.
The force may number up to 1,100, many of them former Iraqi army soldiers. The deal Thursday - agreed in a heavily protected compound on the outskirts of town, dubbed "the Alamo" - was sealed at a meeting between US Lt. Gen. James Conway and a group of Iraqis that included four former Iraqi generals.
"The plan is that the whole of Fallujah will be under the control of the FPA," Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne told reporters. He said the force would be led by a General Saleh, who he identified as a former division commander in Hussein's military.
It is not clear how much control former military chiefs may have over the insurgents, a sticking point that has undermined past talks.
Relying on officers of the former regime is another step away from decisions taken by US occupation authorities almost a year ago, to entirely disband Iraq's armed forces.
"Elements of the Iraqi military did a lot of bad things under the direction of Saddam Hussein," says another senior officer, adding that the military was nevertheless a respected institution. "Not every member of the Iraqi military is a black-hearted individual."
One aim is to get people on the "sidelines" in Fallujah more engaged. "They came to us. We would be foolish not to listen to them," the officer says. "We think they can contribute in a positive manner to the solution we seek."
Tactics used by the guerrillas, from using car bombs to improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are known to have been taught to elements of Hussein's security forces. Among several groups of insurgents operating in Fallujah - described as the "bad boy capital of Iraq" by one Marine officer - many are believed to be former Hussein security and military operatives.
If the agreement works, it will be the first step toward putting an "Iraqi face" on the Fallujah problem, just weeks before US occupation authorities are due to hand sovereignty back to Iraqis on June 30.
"It's finally dawned on US policy makers that they're dealing with a political problem that's not amenable to military solution," says Louis Cantori, a political science professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore county and a former US Marine, on the decision to leave Fallujah in Iraqi hands.
But despite the US shift in strategy, Mr. Cantori doubts the new Iraqi force will be able to deliver peace in Fallujah.
"We know the Iraqi resistance has been targeting to a greater degree than the Americans [the] so-called Iraqi collaborators, so it seems we're presenting the resistance with an amazing opportunity," says Cantori. "If the insurgency has been able to fight marines with this much success do you imagine what they can do against this force?"
Another possible outcome is that Iraqi troops will avoid aggressive tactics against the insurgents and pursue a live and let live policy that leaves them armed and ready for any future changes in the situation. "Sure, they could agree not to shoot at each other,'' says Cantori. "But what happens to the first platoon of marines that go back into the city?"
Lt. Col. Byrne said joint patrols will "expect hostile fire. There is a cadre of bad guys that are still in Fallujah and anytime people go into Fallujah they get fired at."
Of the estimated 3,000 Iraqi police and new army officers on duty in Fallujah before the latest violence flared a month ago, only a few hundred remain. Most left their posts after being threatened or intimidated, or, in some cases, joining the anti-US guerrillas.
"There are a bunch of thugs in there, and we [Iraqis] have got to take responsibility for that," says an agent from Iraq's US-recruited intelligence service, who hovered around the talks Thursday.
• Wire agencies and Dan Murphy in Baghdad contributed to this report