FALLUJAH, Iraq – For the first time since U.S. forces captured Fallujah (search) three months ago, American soldiers withdrew from the mayor's office Friday, the mayor said. U.S. troops also left a police station in this tense western town after Iraqi officers complained the American presence was putting them at risk.
Also Friday, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer (search) scheduled a weekend news conference at which he was expected to announce the makeup of a new governing council of 25-30 prominent Iraqis. The council would be the first national Iraqi political body since the fall of Saddam Hussein (search), and would hopefully lead to the selection of a constitutional congress, and later elections.
A senior Western diplomat said earlier this month that the council would have a Shiite Muslim (search) majority, to reflect the demographics of the country, and would also favor internal Iraqi politicians to those who returned to Iraq from exile. Women are also expected to get a prominent role.
The rearrangement of troops in Fallujah apparently aimed to lower the Americans' profile in the city where many residents have sharply opposed U.S. occupation. Mayor Taha Bedewi said he hoped the reduced American troop presence around his office would help ease attacks on both Iraqi police and U.S. military personnel.
"The Americans were inside the mayor's office building to protect us, but now we have told them that the Iraqi police can handle the issue," he said. "We asked them to leave and they did so. ... I hope the attacks will stop in this city. Let us wait and see."
Attacks by pro-Saddam Hussein insurgents in recent weeks have threatened to drag Iraq's American and British occupiers into a military and political quagmire. Most of the attacks have taken place in an area north and west of Baghdad called the "Sunni Triangle (search)," which includes Fallujah.
On Friday afternoon there was no sign of U.S. troops anywhere in the troubled city that has been the scene of many attacks on American forces. Some residents who were out in the blistering midday sun said the city would be safer if American forces were not there.
Police Lt. Jamal Ahmed said the Americans had withdrawn from the mayor's office shortly before noon.
"We feel happy. We will do our best to protect the building," Ahmed said.
A U.S. military official in Baghdad said he had no information on American forces leaving the mayor's office.
Sgt. Patrick Compton, public affairs officer for the U.S. command in Baghdad, said reports that the 3rd Infantry Division had abandoned the city were "completely bogus" and said he had heard nothing of American forces leaving the mayor's office.
Col. Jalal Sabri, head of the Fallujah police force, said the Americans left the disputed police station Friday morning.
Later Friday, two U.S. Humvees and a third military vehicle were seen outside the police station, but U.S. soldiers said they had returned only temporarily.
"We have just come back to construct barricades for the Iraqi police, but we are not repositioning here," said Staff Sgt. Louis Scott.
Compton said a "half dozen would remain" in the vicinity to offer support.
Police in the town said they were willing to work with the Americans, but did not want them using the station as a base, fearing it would make the Iraqi officers the target of pro-Saddam insurgents.
"We feel more comfortable because of this withdrawal. We can solve the problems here better than the Americans and communicate better with the people," Sabri said. "We have told the Americans many times that we have the capability. We asked them to give us a chance and see our work. If they don't like how we perform, they can come back."
Before dawn Friday, insurgents fired two mortar rounds into the U.S. base in the western city of Ramadi, 60 miles west of the capital. Capt. Michael Calvert, public affairs officer for the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, said there were no injuries or damage to the base, housed in a former palace of Saddam Hussein. It was the seventh attack on the base in the last 10 days.
Meanwhile, several Iraqi civilians including a young girl were injured after getting caught in the crossfire of skirmishes between U.S. soldiers and insurgents, the U.S. military said Friday.
One Iraqi was shot in the neck and another in the abdomen when troops opened fire after a rocket-propelled grenade attack late Thursday on a military convoy on a road leading to Baghdad International Airport. The wounded Iraqis were both taken to a nearby hospital. Their condition was not known. The road to the airport is a frequent site of attacks on U.S. troops.
Also Thursday, a young Iraqi girl sustained shrapnel wounds during a nighttime firefight between U.S. forces and suspected militants near the city of Balad, 55 miles north of the capital, the military said. The girl was in stable condition and being treated at an Army hospital on the massive Sustainer air base near Balad.
Since President Bush declared major combat operations had ended on May 1, at least 31 U.S. soldiers have been killed by hostile fire and 46 others have died in accidents and other non-hostile circumstances, a total of 77.
Several dozen Iraqi police, most wearing new uniforms provided by the U.S. military, marched on the mayor's office Thursday in Fallujah saying they would quit their posts if the American soldiers continued to use their station as a base.