- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2003

From combined dispatches

FALLUJAH, Iraq — The U.S.-appointed mayor of Fallujah said American forces withdrew from his office yesterday — a highly symbolic gesture of confidence that local police can keep him safe in the violence-ridden city.

At the same time, U.S. soldiers dramatically decreased their presence at Fallujah’s police station after Iraqi officers complained they were in danger of being caught in the cross fire of attacks on coalition forces.

U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer, meanwhile, scheduled a weekend news conference where he is expected to announce the makeup of a new governing council of 25 to 30 prominent Iraqis — the first national Iraqi political body since Saddam Hussein’s ouster.

A senior Western diplomat told the Associated Press earlier this month the council would have a Shi’ite Muslim majority, to reflect the demographics of the country, and favor internal Iraqi politicians over those who returned from exile. It would also include Sunni and Kurdish representatives and give women a prominent role. Mr. Bremer would wield a binding veto over the council.

The leader of a prominent Shi’ite movement yesterday said the council must work to end the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

The council “must play an effective role to fill the political and administrative void in the country and put an end to the U.S.-British occupation,” Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim told his followers at the shrine of Ali in the holy city of Najaf, 80 miles south of Baghdad.

Ayatollah Hakim, head of the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), who returned from 23 years of exile in Iran after Saddam’s ouster, demanded the council “not be limited to a consultative role by the occupation forces.”

“If the council is shaped not according to Iraqi wishes, it won’t be acceptable,” Agence France-Presse quoted him as saying.

Fallujah Mayor Taha Bedewi said yesterday he hoped the reduced U.S. troop presence in the town would help ease attacks on both the Iraqi police and U.S. military personnel.

“The Americans were inside the mayor’s office building to protect us, but now we have told them that the Iraqi police can handle the issue,” he said. “We asked them to leave and they did so. … I hope the attacks will stop in this city.”

A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Sgt. Patrick Compton, said he had no information about American forces leaving the mayor’s office, although a reporter saw no sign of U.S. soldiers in the vicinity yesterday.

Most of the attacks by Saddam loyalists on U.S. and British occupation forces have taken place in a region north and west of Baghdad called the “Sunni Triangle,” which includes Fallujah.

Sgt. Compton said a half-dozen U.S. soldiers would remain in the area to offer support. There had been about 30 Americans at the police facility.

Iraqi police Lt. Jamal Ahmed said the Americans withdrew from the mayor’s office shortly before noon. “We feel happy. We will do our best to protect the building,” he said.

Col. Jalal Sabri, head of the Fallujah police force, said soldiers also left the police station yesterday morning.

Later in the day, two U.S. Humvees and a third military vehicle were seen outside the police station, but U.S. soldiers said they had returned only temporarily.

“We have just come back to construct barricades for the Iraqi police, but we are not repositioning here,” said Staff Sgt. Louis Scott.

Police in Fallujah said they were willing to work with the Americans, but did not want them using the station as a base, fearing it would make Iraqi officers the target of pro-Saddam insurgents.

“We feel more comfortable because of this withdrawal. We can solve the problems here better than the Americans and communicate better with the people,” Col. Sabri said. “We have told the Americans many times that we have the capability. We asked them to give us a chance and see our work. If they don’t like how we perform, they can come back.”

Later, an AFP correspondent reported that an Army patrol came under fire on the outskirts of Fallujah last night. It was not clear whether there were any casualties.

Two anti-tank missiles were launched at the patrol and an exchange of fire followed, the correspondent said.

Suspected insurgents fired four mortar rounds late Thursday at a U.S. military base near Samarra, north of the capital, wounding three soldiers, the military reported yesterday. A patrol that went to inspect the area found one wounded Iraqi and took him to a hospital. It was not clear if he was an innocent bystander or was injured trying to fire the mortars.

Before dawn yesterday, insurgents fired two mortar rounds into a U.S. base in Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad. Capt. Michael Calvert of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment said there were no injuries or damage to the base, housed in one of Saddam’s former palaces. It was the seventh attack on the base in 10 days.

Meanwhile, one Iraqi was shot in the neck and another in the abdomen when troops opened fire after a rocket-propelled-grenade attack late Thursday on a military convoy on a road leading to the Baghdad airport.

An Iraqi girl sustained shrapnel wounds during a firefight Thursday night between U.S. forces and suspected militants near Balad, 55 miles north of the capital, the military said. The girl was being treated at an Army hospital.

Since President Bush declared major combat operations ended May 1, at least 31 U.S. troops have been killed by hostile fire in Iraq.

In other developments yesterday, Iraq’s former information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, nicknamed “Comical Ali” during the war for his blustery defense of Iraq, made a sudden appearance in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, saying he might not return to his homeland.

Mr. Sahhaf, 63, who was not on the U.S. “most-wanted” list, was freed last month after he surrendered to U.S. forces in Baghdad. He hinted that he planned to live and work in the UAE, Reuters news agency reported.

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