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All-Out Offensive on Fallujah Possible as Peace Talks Fail

By Dexter Filkins

The New York Times -- NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq

The chief negotiator for the city of Fallujah said Monday that he had called off peace talks with the Iraqi government on the orders of guerrillas who control the city, in the latest development that seemed to signal the likelihood of an all-out offensive by the Americans and the Iraqi government to retake the city.

The negotiator, Khalid al-Jumali, said only hours after being released from U.S. custody that the “council of holy warriors” had sent him a message telling him to end any negotiations with the Iraqi government. Al-Jumali suggested that he had little choice but to go along and said talks might start again, but only with the insurgents’ consent.

“The continuous bombing in Fallujah is what led the mujahedeen council to tell me to suspend the negotiations,” al-Jumali said.

His statement seemed to answer a crucial question that had hung over the long-running talks to reach a peaceful settlement in Fallujah: whether al-Jumali and tribal leaders like him could force the insurgents to disarm if that were called for in a peace agreement.

In previous interviews al-Jumali suggested that the tribal leaders, with deep roots in the city, maintained enough leverage over the guerrillas. On Monday he suggested that his leverage was minimal.

The U.S. military confirmed Monday for the first time that they had detained and released al-Jumali, but it is unclear why they did so and what they did with al-Jumali when they had him. “He was detained for a short time,” said Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a military spokesman in Baghdad. The colonel gave no further details.

Back at home on Monday, al-Jumali said he had been picked up by U.S. forces on Friday in the nearby town of Habaniya and flown by helicopter to a military base, where he had been interrogated about conditions in Fallujah. He said the Americans had given him a toothbrush and a bar of soap during his detention. “They treated me well,” he said.

His detention, which the Americans initially denied, seemed unusual, if only because some of the Americans and Iraqis involved in the negotiations said they regarded al-Jumali as well intentioned. It seemed clear enough on Monday that he was very much a man caught between two powerful forces that he could not control: the U.S. military and the insurgents.

“I don’t know why I was arrested, and the investigator told me he didn’t know either,” al-Jumali said.

He was released after the intervention of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, said Sabah Qadhim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

Fallujah was mostly quiet on Monday after several days of bombing and fighting between insurgents and U.S. Marines, who have moved in closer to the city to draw out the guerrillas.

People continued to stream out of the city, fearing the all-out invasion that Iraqi leaders have been threatening if the insurgents do not agree to hand over their heavy weapons and turn over foreigners who have been fighting on their side. Residents described the city, which ordinarily has a population of 250,000, as mostly deserted, with the doors of the shops shuttered and many of the homes boarded up.

“Most of the people, 90 percent, have left the city,” said Mustafa Shawket, the owner of an aluminum factory in Fallujah who was leaving the city for Baghdad. “We can’t stay in Fallujah anymore.”