1.00pm - By PATRICK COCKBURN in Baghdad

US Marine commanders and former Iraqi generals appeared close to agreeing a compromise in Fallujah last night under which the Marines would withdraw and be replaced in the besieged city by Iraqi soldiers.

Elsewhere in Iraq ten US soldiers were killed, eight of them by a single bomb south of Baghdad, bringing the number of US troops killed in action in April to 126. This is higher than the number killed in the war last year.

Lt Col Brennan Byrne announced a deal under which the Marines would withdraw from around Fallujah, after besieging it for almost a month, and be replaced by a 1,100-strong Iraqi army force led by a former general from the old Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein. Col Brennan said the agreement was 'tentative' and 'finer points' had still to be worked out.

Going by the details so far revealed the deal is a climb-down by the US which had previously demanded that heavy weapons and resistance fighters be handed over. It is not clear if it will be accepted by the insurgents who do not appear to have an overall commander but consist of fragmented groups.

Under the plan the Marines would withdraw and be replaced by the Fallujah Protection Army led by a General Salah, who is believed to be Lt Gen Salah Abboud al-Jabbouri, a native of Fallujah. Under Saddam Hussein he was governor of Anbar province to which Fallujah belongs.

The new Iraqi force will "have certain advantages we don't," said Col Byrne.

"One, they're Iraqi. Two, they're local. So, they know the populace, they know the terrain."

It is not clear who will make up the new force. The new Iraqi army currently has five battalions, one of which mutinied earlier this month when ordered to move to Fallujah.

More remarkably a marine officer said that some of the fighters in Fallujah were expected to be part of this new force.

The siege of Fallujah, a city of 300,000, began on 5 April and rapidly turned into a political disaster for the US.

The resistance in the city became a symbol for Iraqi nationalists and television pictures of the bombardment of Fallujah, broadcast across the world, underlined how far President George W Bush was mistaken when he announced that major combat in Iraq was over on 1 May last year.

American officials were last night showing signs of uncertainty as to the future of their forces in Fallujah.

In Washington the Pentagon spokesman said "there is no deal that we are aware of."

But at the same time Marines started to demolish earth banks they had built for defensive purposes during the fighting. In other parts of Fallujah skirmishing continued.

Col Byrne said "the plan is that the whole of Fallujah will be under the control of the FPA." He called the deal "an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem."

If the deal does stick then the siege will have proved a serious setback for the US which set out to avenge the death of four private security men, shot and hacked to death on 31 March.

But the siege of the town, starting on 5 April, was rapidly denounced in Iraq and the rest of the world as smacking of collective punishment with heavy civilian casualties. Several hundred civilians and fighters died. Eight US Marines were killed.

"I can't believe what we have gone through," said Hassan al-Halbousi, a 60-year-old who stayed in his house to look after it.

"The bombing has terrified me. No one is in the streets. Even the dogs in the city were hunting us because they had no food."

Several Iraqis were killed at a checkpoint out of the town yesterday when their minibus was riddled by US troops.

Elsewhere in Iraq the US suffered losses from car bombs and roadside bombs.
Such devices have inflicted far more casualties than firefights.

Eight soldiers from the 1st Armoured Division were killed in Mahmoudiyah, a town south of Baghdad where there have been many attacks.


Herald Feature: Iraq

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