FALLUJAH, Iraq - The olive green uniform of Saddam Hussein's army is making a comeback in this turbulent city, where soldiers of the former regime are taking over security from U.S. Marines.
The end of a nearly monthlong Marine siege may signal an important turning point for Iraqis seeking to regain control of their country and raises questions about how U.S. forces will operate after sovereignty is handed over June 30.
The end of the siege and the establishment of the new Fallujah brigade are another sign of Iraqis reasserting themselves against the U.S.-led coalition, even before the power transfer.
Many Iraqis are vehemently opposed to a new flag adopted by the U.S.-backed Governing Council. Following the disclosure of abuses of Iraqi prisoners at a U.S.-run prison, Iraqi authorities are demanding that they take part in the interrogation of detainees and the running of coalition prisons.
The formation of the new brigade also draws attention to what is now widely perceived as a major American policy error - the disbanding of the Iraqi army a year ago. That decision embittered tens of thousands of soldiers, many of whom are believed to have joined the anti-American insurgency.
The siege of Fallujah, a hotbed of anti-U.S. resistance since American troops arrived 13 months ago, has elevated the city to heroic status, galvanized anti-occupation sentiment across this nation of 25 million people and restored much of the prestige which the Sunni Arab minority lost under a post-Saddam administration that favored the Shiite majority and large Kurdish community.
U.S. officials have tried to put their own spin on Fallujah, saying that brave Iraqis stepped forward to save the city from "terrorists."
"Some people showed up and wanted to take charge of security," National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice said Tuesday on Lebanon's LBC-Hayat television. "Helping taking Fallujah out of the hands of terrorists is very important ... It is good for Iraqis to come forward and deal with the security situation.
The formation of a brigade made up exclusively of former army officers would have been unthinkable before the insurgents' standoff with the Marines. Now, given the outpouring of popular sympathy for the Fallujah insurgents, Iraqis who opposed or distanced themselves from the occupation may stand the best chance of political survival after June 30.
"After what happened in Fallujah, there will be no room for those who cooperated with the Americans," Mohammed Abdullah, a Fallujah cleric, said at a Sufi mosque where residents lined up for emergency relief rations.
On Tuesday, scores of uniformed officers, from generals to lieutenants, swarmed the Fallujah security headquarters at the heart of the city. With them came hundreds of men in Arab robes who served as conscripts or noncommissioned officers in Saddam's army and are now clamoring to sign up for the Fallujah force, which is expected to number about 1,500 men.
Officers dashed from room to room carrying bundles of documents as the force commander, retired Maj. Gen. Mohammed Abdul-Latif, chaired a meeting before a map of the city spread across a wooden desk. Others lounged on leather armchairs chatting with old comrades. Some held whispering conversations on the fringes of the building's dusty courtyard.
They hope to earn an steady income after a year of unemployment and restore some of the pride the military lost when U.S.-led coalition forces rolled with relative ease across Iraq during the invasion.
"I have had a year of hurt and frustration," said Maj. Abbas Fadel. "I never thought I will wear my army uniform again, but still kept it in my wardrobe just in case. When I came out wearing it for the first time on Saturday, people were shouting to me 'a thousand mercies on the soul of your father, we missed the olive-green.'"
In many ways, the atmosphere at the security headquarters resembled a college reunion or a postwar officers club. The mood was upbeat, as officers exchanged warm handshakes and hugs and inquired about each other's families. Their uniforms were neatly pressed and many spoke - with a hint of triumph - of what they said was the mistaken decision to dissolve the army.
"We are here to put out the fire in Fallujah," said the silver-haired Abdul-Latif, the force's 66-year-old commander. "Fallujah has suffered a great deal but, God willing, the smile will return to the city's children."
U.S. officials have acknowledged they did not vet the force's commanders for the extent of their ties to Saddam before letting the new brigade take over. But Abdul-Latif, a native of Baghdad, said the officers taking charge of the force had nothing to do with crimes committed under Saddam.
The siege of the Fallujah, a city of 200,000 people, and the relatively high number of people killed in fighting - 730 by one hospital count - triggered an international outcry and the brigade's creation has handed insurgents in the city a victory of some sort.
Insurgents long demanded that U.S. troops stop patrolling the city, leaving law and order in the hands of Iraqis. The city and its immediate surroundings have seen almost daily clashes between insurgents and U.S. troops and the only quiet spells it has experienced came when U.S. commanders halted such patrols.
The new brigade has taken up positions in the south of Fallujah and is expected to replace Marines in the north and start patrols inside the city soon. Residents widely accept its role.
"Anybody will do except the Americans," Mohammed Jabr Hassan said as he and a small crowd surveyed the damage sustained by a cluster of homes in the Golan neighborhood on Fallujah's northwestern fringes, scene of the worst fighting during the siege. "This is not a high price to pay for the victory of our fighters."
The "victory" is evident in Fallujah. "Long live the heroic men of Fallujah who threw the Americans out," reads one graffiti.
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