FALLUJAH, Iraq – U.S troops are handing Iraqi officials responsibility for policing the restive city of Fallujah (search), where American forces have come under increasing attack from Saddam Hussein loyalists, the military announced Saturday.
Iraqi police and the U.S.-appointed mayor requested the transfer, saying it would help reduce anti-American ambushes and shootings in the city, located in the "Sunni Triangle," (search) a swathe of central Iraq where Saddam had strong support.
The U.S.-led coalition said in a statement that the transfer of responsibility began Friday after Fallujah police asked for more power "in patrolling and securing the town."
Fallujah's mayor, Taha Bedewi (search), and the police said Friday that U.S. soldiers had left the mayor's office and the city's main police station, where the Americans had been posted since they seized the city in April. Police had complained that the presence of U.S. troops could draw attacks and threaten the Iraqis' security.
On Thursday, several dozen Iraqi police, most wearing new uniforms provided by the U.S. military, marched on the mayor's office saying they would quit their posts if the American soldiers continued to use their station as a base.
Fallujah has seen several deadly attacks on American and Iraqi forces since U.S. troops killed 20 protesters in late April. Insurgents fired two rocket-propelled grenades at American troops in the city Wednesday, causing no casualties. And an explosion Saturday at a police graduation ceremony in Ramadi, 28 miles west of Fallujah, killed seven U.S.-trained recruits.
American troops have come under daily attack in ambushes, shootings and bombings across central Iraq. Since President Bush declared major combat operations had ended on May 1, at least 31 U.S. soldiers have been killed by hostile fire. There have been unconfirmed reports that Saddam, who is believed to be hiding somewhere in Iraq, is paying those who launch attacks against coalition forces.
The U.S. statement Saturday said the Americans would "allow the Fallujah police to patrol the streets themselves instead of jointly with military police," though the military would keep a rapid reaction team on call to help if needed.
On Saturday in Fallujah, the U.S. military was out in force after having sharply reduced its presence a day earlier.
An Associated Press reporter in the city saw 10 American patrols as well has six U.S. Humvees and soldiers outside Bedewi's office. Bedewi said they were there only to "discuss issues of reconstructing the city, and they will leave after finishing the work."
He said that there were no attacks on Americans in Fallujah on Friday, but that it was "too early to judge whether that was related to the withdrawal of American forces."
There also were U.S. military police outside the main police station in the city Saturday after U.S. forces pulled back from the facility. A U.S. officer, Lt. Robert A. King , said they were there to help in transporting criminals and cleaning the station.