Fallujah Brigade likely to get new leader

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FALLUJAH, Iraq — The U.S. Marines likely will change the overall commander of a group of former Iraqi soldiers charged with restoring order in this restive city, a senior U.S. military official said yesterday. The move appeared aimed at defusing a growing controversy over the former army general initially selected to lead the unit.

The senior military official, who spoke in Baghdad on condition of anonymity, said Jassim Mohammed Saleh, a former army-division commander who served in President Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard, would no longer be the overall leader of the new Fallujah Brigade. Instead, he will help lead one of the three battalions that will form the brigade, the official said.

The brigade likely will be led by Mohammed Latif, a former intelligence officer who was expelled from the country by Saddam's government, the official said. The brigade was created and sent to Fallujah in an attempt to give Iraqis primary responsibility for pursuing insurgents who have been battling Marines there for a month.

In the southern city of Najaf, militiamen loyal to a Shiite Muslim cleric attacked a U.S. military base with mortars overnight, then opened fire in the afternoon from several directions, news services reported. No casualties were reported.

U.S. troops responded with tank and machine-gun fire, demolishing a building that was described as the source of the shooting.

U.S. forces are massed around Najaf in response to an insurrection led by the cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, and his militia. A military spokesman, Lt. Col. Pat White, told The Associated Press after yesterday's fighting that U.S. troops would "maintain our defense posture" until someone "much, much higher than me makes a different decision."

Meanwhile, one U.S. soldier was killed yesterday and two were wounded when they were attacked south of Baghdad. The soldiers were members of a 1st Armored Division unit providing security around a weapons cache discovered Sunday night, said Maj. Dave Gercken, a spokesman for the division.

A Marine was killed yesterday as a result of enemy action in Anbar province while conducting what were described as security and stability operations, Marine officers said.

The deaths brought the U.S. toll to 153 since April 1 — including 15 in May, according to The Associated Press. At least 755 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.

In Baghdad, Iraq's U.S. administrator said he was optimistic that important agreements would be reached soon on the shape and leadership of the interim Iraqi government that is to assume sovereignty June 30. The administrator, L. Paul Bremer, said U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi would return to Iraq in a few days to continue negotiations.

"I think it's a little early to say what the process will be, but we expect to have an interim government in place by the end of the month," Bremer said.

It was not clear whether the decision to name a new overall commander of the Iraqi brigade in Fallujah was made by Marine officers here or by more senior military and civilian officials in Baghdad and Washington.

Saleh had been lauded by Marine commanders, but officials at the Pentagon and the U.S. military command in Baghdad questioned his credentials and cast doubt on his fitness to lead the brigade.

Saleh, a Sunni Muslim who is originally from Fallujah but had been living in Baghdad, had served as the commanding general of the Iraqi army's 38th Infantry Division. Earlier in his military career, he was an officer in the Republican Guard, an elite branch of the army sometimes used by Saddam to suppress internal dissent.

The Iraqi National Congress, a political organization headed by Ahmed Chalabi, a Shiite Muslim politician who has been a vocal proponent of excluding former senior members of the military from service in the new security forces, said Saleh commanded a Republican Guard battalion that participated in suppressing a Shiite insurrection in 1991.

"We are not going to have, as part of the defense of this country, someone who has blood on their hands," the senior military official said.

Saleh also irritated U.S. officials over the weekend when he proclaimed there were no foreign fighters among the insurgents in Fallujah. Marine officers estimated 200 foreign guerrillas were in the city before Saleh's force took control Friday. The top Marine commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. James Conway, said Saleh was under orders to pursue the foreigners.

Conway said on Saturday that his staff had vetted the leaders of the new force, including Saleh. A senior Marine officer said their names had been run through U.S. government databases "and nothing detrimental came up."

A senior Marine officer acknowledged Saleh and other leaders of the new force did not have spotless records, but the officer said it was critical to have leaders who command respect in the city.

Saleh, the officer noted, was cheered by residents as he entered Fallujah on Friday dressed in his olive-green army uniform.

"It's a balancing act," the officer said. "You want somebody who has influence — and you generally won't find that among people who did not have some position of authority before."

Although the Fallujah Brigade is supposed to crack down on insurgents, the force will likely include some of the same gunmen who fought against the Marines last month. Marine commanders say they hope leaders of the brigade will persuade Iraqis who participated in the fighting to switch sides and pursue foreign fighters.

The senior military official in Baghdad said the decision to appoint Latif as brigade commander was not just because of Saleh's record but also because Latif appeared more influential.

The senior military official said Latif studied at the British military staff college. The official said Latif would have to undergo more vetting before he was appointed.

According to Conway, Latif participated in the meetings with Marines that led to the Fallujah Brigade's formation. He said Latif had been exiled by Saddam's government for seven or eight years.

"He is very well thought of, very well respected by the Iraqi general officers," Conway said. "You can just see the body language between them. And if I had to guess at this point, when we have this brigade fully formed, he demonstrates a level of leadership that tells me that he could become that brigade commander."