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U.S. troops likely to move into parts of Najaf soon

JASON KEYSER

FALLUJAH, Iraq – U.S. troops will begin patrols with Iraqi security forces in Fallujah, 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 that Spanish troops will abandon when they withdraw from Iraq 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 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.