THE United States’ policy on Iraq was in disarray last night, as the Pentagon admitted it was unaware of a breakthrough agreement to end the siege of Fallujah announced by its troops on the ground.
While a new poll showed a majority of Iraqis want US and British troops to leave in the next few months, an American marine commander revealed that his troops were preparing to withdraw from the outskirts of Fallujah, a major U-turn in US policy.
Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne said a newly created Iraqi force of 1,100 soldiers, called the Fallujah Protective Army and led by a former general from Saddam Hussein’s army, would take over security in the besieged city.
It was a deal few of his superiors seemed aware of.
In Washington, Larry Di Rita, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said: "There’s no deal that we’re aware of." He added that he could not rule out that an agreement was in place, but said that officials at the US military command in Baghdad told him they could not confirm a final deal was sealed.
In Washington, Paul Wolfowitz, the US deputy defence secretary, said the situation in Fallujah was confusing but a deal was being worked on.
"The goal has got to be to try to isolate the killers from the population, so that if military action is necessary, it can be done with a minimum of civilian casualties," he added.
To add to the sense of disarray, US marines to the south of Fallujah were yesterday packing up their kit and destroying earthworks in apparent preparation for withdrawal. Yet elsewhere in the city, airstrikes were being launched against insurgent positions and gunfire could be heard last night.
The marines’ siege of Fallujah is the most controversial military action undertaken by coalition forces since the end of the war, with Iraqi doctors estimating that 600 Iraqis had died in the fighting.
Sunni and Shiite communities alike have expressed their anger at the US tactics, and members of the coalition-appointed Iraqi Governing Council have threatened to resign if the fighting continues. Confirmation of the coalition’s unpopularity came yesterday, with the publication of a poll which showed that, despite concerns about their own safety, the majority of Iraqis say they want the US and British troops now in Iraq to leave within the next few months.
The CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll was taken between 22 March and 9 April, before the latest rounds of fighting between coalition forces and insurgents. Yet the results will prove of concern to coalition planners:
• 64 per cent of those polled said actions by the coalition have turned out worse than they expected at the time of the invasion;
• 57 per cent said they would like to see coalition troops leave "immediately, within the next few months", while 36 per cent said they would like to see those troops stay longer;
• Seven in ten said they view the US presence as an occupation and not a liberation;
• Last August, almost six in ten Iraqis said they had a positive view of how US troops are behaving. Now, residents of Baghdad view US soldiers negatively, by almost 8-1;
• Six in ten of those polled from Sunni areas said the attacks on US troops can be justified morally. However, six out of ten Iraqis said ousting Saddam was worth the hardships they have faced since then.
The situation in Iraq is also causing increased concern in the US as the death toll mounts. Ten more soldiers died yesterday - eight of them killed when a car bomb exploded south of Baghdad.
At least 125 US soldiers have died this month, bringing to 534 the total number of those killed in action since the invasion in March 2003.
A new opinion poll in the US has found that support for the war has fallen substantially over the past few months. After initially expressing robust backing for the war, the American public is now evenly divided over whether the military should stay for as long as it takes to stabilise Iraq, or pull out as soon as possible, the poll showed.
Asked whether the US had done the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, 47 per cent of respondents said it had, down from 58 per cent a month earlier and 63 per cent in December.
The New York Times/CBS News poll found that 46 per cent of respondents said the US should have stayed out of Iraq, up from 37 per cent last month and 31 per cent in December.