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US tests way out of Fallujah

The US and local leaders agreed to allow a new force, called the Fallujah Protective Army, to provide security starting Friday.

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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.

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