NAJAF, Iraq – U.S. troops will begin patrols with Iraqi security forces in Fallujah (search), the military said Sunday, as the United States backed down from warnings of an all-out assault that could spark new bloodshed and deepen anti-American sentiment.
The patrols are to begin as early as Tuesday, and Fallujah officials will announce in the city that anyone seen carrying a weapon will be considered hostile, the military said.
Meanwhile, a U.S. general told The Associated Press troops will move into a base on the edge of the holy city of Najaf (search) that Spanish troops will abandon when they withdraw from Iraq (search) in the coming weeks. But the Americans will remain away from holy sites -- an effort to avoid outraging Iraq's Shiite majority, which opposes any U.S. foray near their most sacred shrine.
Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling (search) said the troops aimed to "counter the forces" of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. A coalition spokesman, Dan Senor, said weapons were being stockpiled in mosques and schools in Najaf, a practice he said must stop.
The measures in Fallujah and Najaf were announced a day after President Bush held a teleconference with senior national security and military advisers to discuss the situation in Fallujah and the rest of Iraq.
The moves appeared aimed at bringing a degree of control over the cities without re-igniting the intense violence that began when U.S. authorities moved on the two fronts simultaneously at the start of April.
The wave of fighting since has killed up to 1,200 Iraqis and 111 U.S. troops, nearly as many in 25 days as the 115 Americans who were killed during the two-month invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein a year ago.
The deal to bring patrols into Fallujah meant extending the cease-fire for at least another two days, U.S. officials said. Military action in Fallujah was still an option, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said, but the warning was dramatically toned down from those in the past week.
The new steps in Fallujah were not without risks.
There was little guarantee that guerrillas in Fallujah won't attack joint U.S.-Iraqi patrols. Some Marine commanders said privately they had hoped to push on with an offensive deeper into the city and were concerned Marine patrols would become targets.
Iraqi security forces due to patrol with them were equally ill at ease.
"I don't feel safe because the Americans themselves are not safe," police Capt. Jassim Abed said. "They get shot at. They can't guarantee safety for themselves, so how can they guarantee my safety?"
Marine Lt. Col Brennan Byrne, on Fallujah's outskirts, said patrols may not start until Thursday as Marines and Iraqi forces organize them.
He said the patrols would be backed by armor and air support but for now will steer clear of Fallujah's Julan district, a poorer neighborhood where many insurgents are concentrated.
"It will be a combat patrol in the city that is prepared to deal with anything they run into," he said. "If we are attacked, we will absolutely eradicate that source of fire." But he added that individual attacks would not lead to a wider engagement.
U.S. occupation leaders are under pressure not to launch major military action. Some U.S.-picked Iraqi leaders were angered by the Fallujah siege. The top U.N. envoy for Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi -- who has been asked by Washington to help pick a new government -- warned the United States against assaults on Najaf or Fallujah
"When you surround a city, you bomb the city, when people cannot go to hospital, what name do you have for that? ... If you have enemies there, this is exactly what they want you to do, to alienate more people so that more people support them rather than you," Brahimi said of Fallujah on ABC's "This Week."
"In this situation, there is no military solution," he said.
In the latest U.S. deaths, a soldier was killed Sunday when a roadside bomb hit his patrol in eastern Baghdad. A U.S. Coast Guardsman also died of wounds suffered the night before in a homicide boat attack on oil facilities that killed two Navy sailors.
Iraq's main outlet for oil exports, the Al-Basra terminal, was damaged and won't be able to resume loading tankers until Monday at the earliest, said Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulloum. The closure cost Iraq around 1 million barrels in exports the first day.
Mortar attacks in the northern city of Mosul killed two Iraqis outside a hotel, and an explosion outside a hospital killed two Iraqis and wounded 10, the U.S. military said.
As U.S. officials toned down recent warnings, they also spoke of progress in Fallujah. "At this point, it would not seem to be constructive for either side to be laying down ultimatums," Kimmitt said.
Still, he said there had been no more weapons handed over -- not even the kind of rusted, broken or otherwise useless ones that were surrendered last week. U.S. officials have been complaining for days that guerrillas were not abiding by a call to disarm issued under the agreement reached with American negotiators.
He also said insurgents were still shooting at U.S. troops in the past 24 hours. A helicopter gunship fired on a house in Fallujah where guerrillas had been seen preparing a mortar on Friday, killing 25 fighters, Kimmitt said.
The patrols are "the first step to returning the city to a sense of stability," he said.
Hachim al-Hassani, a top Iraqi mediator in negotiations over Fallujah, said city officials had promised the patrols would be respected. "We hope the U.S. soldiers will not be attacked when they enter the city. If they are attacked, they will respond and this will lead to problems," he said.
Marine commanders have expressed concern that the city officials cannot speak for the insurgents.
Marines on Sunday began allowing more families who fled Fallujah amid recent fighting to return. Kimmitt said 67 families would be let in Sunday. More than a third of the city's population of 200,000 fled the siege. Marines had halted their return because guerrillas were not turning in weapons and because they wanted to keep civilians out in case fighting resumed.
Meanwhile, Hertling told troops based outside Najaf that the U.S. military was "coordinating to move" into the Najaf base being vacated by Spanish forces.
"We probably will go into the central part" between the adjacent cities of Kufa and Najaf, where the Spanish base is located. "Will we interfere in the religious institutions? Absolutely not," said Hertling, a deputy commander of the 1st Armored Division. He gave no timeframe for the move.
In Baghdad, Kimmitt said "it is not our understanding that we will have soldiers going into Najaf soon."
Hertling said the move aimed to increase pressure on al-Sadr and his militia.
"It's not going to be large-scale fighting, the likes of other places," he said. But "we're going to drive this guy into the dirt."