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Outgoing commander questions U.S. strategy on Falluja

From Mike Mount

Conway briefs reporters at the Pentagon in this 2003 file photo.
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The U.S. strategy in Falluja is being questioned.
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FALLUJA, Iraq (CNN) -- A former U.S. Marine commander of forces in western Iraq says he was opposed to the method and timing of the U.S. response to attacks on Americans last spring in the Sunni Muslim stronghold of Falluja.

Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway said Sunday that he was ordered to attack parts of the city west of Baghdad after insurgents ambushed and killed four U.S. contractors March 31.

After the media showed images of the contractors' dismembered bodies suspended from a bridge over the Euphrates River, the U.S.-led coalition began planning a way to end anti-American insurgent activity in Falluja.

"We felt like we had a method that we wanted to apply to Falluja and thought we ought to let the situation settle before we appeared to be attacking out of revenge," Conway said.

Conway made his comments shortly after relinquishing his command at a ceremony at Marine headquarters outside Falluja.

"Would our system have been better, would we have been able to bring over the people of Falluja with our methods? You'll never know that for sure," Conway said.

The Marines took control of western Iraq in March from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. The Army had generally left Falluja alone, and Conway and his Marines planned to use reconstruction and civil affairs projects to win support among Iraqis in that volatile part of the country.

A three-day pounding of the city in April by the Marines was ordered to stop by Conway's superior, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who was then commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq, paving the way for the creation of the Falluja Brigade, made up of former Iraqi soldiers from the city.

Conway questioned the decision Sunday. "When you order elements of a Marine division to attack a city, you really need to understand what the consequences of that will be and not vacillate in the middle of something like that," he said. "Once you commit, you have to stay committed."

The creation of the Falluja Brigade also fell on Conway through Sanchez's orders. While the brigade had high hopes from Iraqis, it got little accomplished, and reports of soldiers mixing with insurgents eventually led to the end of the brigade.

The Falluja Brigade, labeled by Conway as an experiment, was dissolved last week, and former members were offered a chance to join the Iraqi army.

"You had to have a force that came from Falluja in order for it to be accepted by the people," Conway said. "Because they were from the local area, they were emasculated as far as their ability to do something very aggressive."

The United States gave the Falluja Brigade thousands of uniforms, hundreds of weapons and dozens of radios and trucks. The Marines have asked for them to be returned, and the brigade's former commander has agreed, but there are reports that much of the material is now in the hands of insurgents.

The U.S. Marines remain out of the city, and fighting continues.

Conway said the U.S. military could "crush the city in four days," though he contends that that will not be the way things are done.

Iraqi forces will be the next soldiers to set foot in the city with U.S. support, Conway said, adding that he doesn't know what the immediate future holds.

"I don't know if the Iraqi security forces are capable of making it better," he said. "There is a police force in Falluja, but I think it's very much compromised and is subject to anti-Iraqi forces in the city. But I think in the end there will be a fight in or around Falluja."

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