"We are happy and we hope this [Jasim Salih's forces] will bring peace and ease the suffering of the families in Falluja," said Khalid Khalil, a teacher who was leaving Falluja for the first time in weeks to visit his daughters in Baghdad.

   

"But we will see because the Americans always go back on their agreements."

   

Nearby, Iraqi Civil Defence Corps Captain Muhammad Dulaimi kept close watch on the checkpoint as a trickle of cars appeared.

   

"Salih has the respect of the people because he is a leader from the army. People in Falluja can't accept the Americans," he said.

   

But he added that he had not seen any of Salih's men in his section of the city, just a few former officers inspecting checkpoints.

 

Falluja Brigade

 

Termed by US military commanders as the 1st Battalion of the Falluja Brigade, the city is returning to normal after being subjected to US air strikes, mortars fired by fighters and frequent gunfire.

 

"We are happy and we hope this [Salih's forces] will bring peace and ease the suffering of the families in Falluja"

Khalid Khalil,
teacher, Falluja

Led by General Salih, who used to belong to Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards, men have begun showing up for duty, the occupation military said.

 

Lieutenant-General James Conway, commander of the 1st Marines Expeditionary Force, told a news conference on Saturday that they were banking on the Iraqi force to douse the resistance in the city.

 

Growing force

   

Conway said the brigade would grow into a force of between 900 and 1100 from Falluja and other towns in the heartland of resistance to the US-led occupation troops west of Baghdad.

   

"They have a plan. It is developing as they continue to develop their intelligence with more and more movement into the city," Conway said.

 

Conway suggested Salih's offer to take on security in Falluja came just in time to avert a major offensive on the city.

   

"It got to the point that we thought there were no options that would preclude an attack," he said.

    

Asked what limits would be placed on Salih's group, Conway said: "We don't see any extremism in any fashion in this group of Iraqi general officers. We are not overly concerned about it at this point."

 

Iraq's former army and security forces were disbanded after the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein just over a year ago.