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Foreign fighters in unstable Fallujah

By P. MITCHELL PROTHERO

FALLUJAH, Iraq, May 3 (UPI) -- While U.S. Marine commanders are hopeful that patrols of local fighters will bring peace to Fallujah, -- a city wracked by anti-coalition activity since the arrival of U.S. forces a year ago -- a situation of even greater concern appears to be lurking; an entire neighborhood seems to be completely under the control of foreign Islamic fighters, mostly from Syria.

An Iraqi employee of United Press International entered Fallujah on Saturday with a source who serves as a mid-level official in the Army of Mohammed, the umbrella group of Iraqi resistance opposing the U.S. occupation. The source had agreed to help arrange a tour of the city and interviews with civilians and resistance fighters by a UPI reporter for the following day.

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They entered the city using a route that passed a new Fallujah Protective Army checkpoint, which waved them into the center of the city without even a cursory search. After the local guide liaised with Iraqi fighters in Fallujah, the pair was given permission to travel to the city and was supplied with three armed guards from the Army of Mohammed while they attempted to identify damaged parts of the city and arrange interviews. Upon their arrival in the Golan neighborhood in the northern portion of the city, where much of the fighting has taken place, a group of fighters speaking with Syrian accents approached and ordered the resistance fighters to leave and took the two men into custody.

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"First, a guy came up to me speaking like a Syrian and told me to put out my cigarette," the UPI employee, Osama Mansour said." When our guards told him that we were with them, he told them to leave and go back to their base. And they did. Then his men searched our car and found business cards and a picture of (Shiite Cleric Moqtada) Sadr."

"I knew right they must be (fundamentalists) because of how they acted when they thought I was Shiite," Osama said. "And they broke the (music) cassettes they found in the car and put me in handcuffs, claiming that I was a Kufr (non-believer) and a spy."

While Osama was handcuffed and locked in a closet, the guide he was working with was taken to another room, and both were then subject to semi-professional interrogation.

"They would ask me questions and then take them to (the guide) and come back and question me on parts of my story," he said.

"They found the (business) cards (of the UPI reporter) and asked me why I worked for Kufr. When I said that we just wanted to interview them to tell the truth, he told me to shut up," Osama said. "They called their leader, who interviewed me, and they all spoke with Syrian accents. They were not Iraqi."

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"After they found the picture of Sadr and a letter from Sadr's office giving us permission to travel in the south, they asked me if I was Shiite or Sunni. I told them 'Hey I'm a Muslim, there is no Shiite and Sunni.' They respected that but told me that the Shiite were worse than Kufr, who just don't believe. They said the Shiite disagreed with (the Prophet Mohammed) and should all be killed."

Osama said at least 10 Syrians were in the compound he was held in and estimates that far more were hidden in various fortifications around the area.

But after three hours of questioning and searches, the men returned all of the equipment taken from the car and drove the two men out of the neighborhood.

"If your name wasn't Osama, we would have killed you," said one of the fighters as they left, making an obvious reference to al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Meanwhile, U.S. military officials named a former general with anti-Baathist credentials to head a newly formed Iraqi military unit intended to help pacify the restive Sunni city of Fallujah after an outcry against the pro-Saddam Hussein background of the first choice.

While it's not clear if U.S. officials even offered the job of heading the newly formed Fallujah Protective Army to Gen. Jasim Mohamed Saleh -- who once headed Republican Guard units and served as governor of the local province -- the original plan appears to have put Saleh in charge.

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But after questions arose about his long history as a key player in the former regime, U.S. officials quickly disputed that the job had been offered and named Gen. Mohammed Latif to head the FPA, while speculating that Saleh would have a role in the unit.

And the top officer for the U.S. Marines in the area used a weekend press conference to dispute reports that the Marines would withdraw from Fallujah and turn local security over to the new unit. The initial reports to that effect came from embedded reporters and eyewitness accounts of Marines pulling back from their positions in Fallujah and turning over several checkpoints to the FPA.

"We have chosen not to commingle U.S. and Iraqi units, and that has prompted some realignment of Marine forces," Lt. Gen. James Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said Saturday. "In fact, we have assigned the Iraqi battalion to our least-engaged sector until they can get their feet on deck, absorb the weapons and equipment we are passing their way, and prepare for the next phase of the operation."

Conway said the decision to incorporate local fighters -- some of whom undoubtedly had recently been fighting the U.S. forces -- stemmed from a need to co-opt Iraqis frustrated by the occupation from the most committed anti-coalition fighters.

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"It got at what was essentially at that point our operational objective, which was to separate out the hard-core insurgents and freedom fighters from the other citizens of the city that may well have taken up weapons against us, based upon the fact that they thought they were defending their city, based upon the call of the imams and those types of things," Conway said.

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