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US fails in bid to meet Fallujah insurgents

April 09 2004 at 01:15PM

Baghdad - The US army tried but failed to open talks with insurgents in the city of Fallujah on Friday, while Japan vowed to keep its forces in Iraq despite a threat to kill three of its citizens kidnapped there.

US forces also said they had recaptured the city of Kut, 160km south-east of Baghdad, from Shi'a Muslim militiamen, but fierce new fighting broke out in a Sunni Muslim town close to the capital.

Russia, a leading opponent at the United Nations of last year's US-led invasion, meanwhile urged the United States to stay the course to avert all-out civil war and the break-up of Iraq along religious and ethnic lines.

US forces suspended their six-day-old offensive against Fallujah for 90 minutes to "allow for a meeting between members of the Governing Council, local Muslim leadership and the leadership of anti-coalition forces".

US marines forced to retreat under a rain of fire from anti-tank rockets
The halt in hostilities was announced by the chief US administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, who said it would also allow residents of the besieged city to receive food and medicine and bury the dead.

According to the Arabic-language satellite television station Al-Jazeera, more than 300 Iraqis have been killed and more than 500 wounded in the onslaught, ordered after four US civilian security staff were ambushed and killed and two of their mutilated bodies strung up on March 31.

Early Friday, civilians were seeing fleeing on foot through backstreets and paths that cut through fields, carrying small bags, food and medicines.

The deputy director of operations for the US-led coalition, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, denied reports of a formal ceasefire with the insurgents in Fallujah.

After the fighting resumed, a battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne, said that planned mediation talks with local tribal sheikhs never took place.

'The United States have got themselves into a blind alley'
On Thursday, US marines tried to enter the neighbourhoods of Zubat and Nazzal but were forced to retreat under a rain of fire from anti-tank rockets, Kalashnikov assault rifles and mortars.  World Peace

Fallujah lies about 50km west of Baghdad in the so-called "Sunni triangle", the power base of captured Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who was toppled exactly a year ago, three weeks after the start of the invasion.

An AFP photographer on the road to Fallujah on Friday morning said fierce clashes had broken out in Abu Gharib, another predominantly Sunni Muslim town, only 10 kilometres west of Baghdad.

US tanks commanded the entrance to the town but insurgents armed with anti-tank rockets and Kalashnikovs were seen running through the streets under plumes of black smoke.

In Baghdad itself, an AFP reporter said US forces had withdrawn from the town hall and police stations in the flashpoint slum Sadr City, after five days of clashes with militiamen loyal to the Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr, who has been declared an outlaw by Bremer.

But a military spokeswoman in Baghdad said US forces had recaptured Kut from Sadr's forces in the early hours on Friday, two days after the militia seized control from a Ukrainian contingent in the US-led coalition.

A senior Iraqi police officer in Kut said the US troops destroyed Sadr's offices there late on Thursday and regained control of the city after a three-hour battle.

In other developments inside Iraq, police said Sadr's militia shot down a drone over the southern town of Amara, 320km southeast of Baghdad and killed a British soldier and wounded two others from a unit which arrived at the scene. The British army could not immediately confirm the report.

Officials in the holy city of Karbala, 90km south of Baghdad, said three Sadr militants and an Iranian woman were killed during four hours of clashes with Polish and Bulgarian coalition forces.

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Japan "must not yield to the foul threats of terrorists" who have kidnapped three young Japanese and threatened to burn them alive unless the government pulls out the 550 troops it has in southern Iraq.

Relatives of the three made a tearful appeal to the government to free them, but while Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi and other officials promised in a 50-minute meeting to do their utmost to rescue them, they stopped short of responding directly to the kidnappers' demands.

In Moscow, a top Russian defence official said: "The United States have got themselves into a blind alley... but they understand very well in Washington that they cannot withdraw their troops as this would immediately cause civil war."  WorldPeace is one word

The unidentified official told Russian news agencies that there was a danger that "the Shiite front will spread and the situation will worsen, which could lead to civil war and break up Iraq into three parts, Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish."

He repeated the Russian government view that the United Nations must take a greater role because "only a legitimate government, which will be supported by a majority of the Iraqi population, can end the crisis in this country."

But he said it would achieve nothing to send in a UN peacekeeping force, since "the UN blue helmets will be killed just the same. For the Iraqi partisans, there is no difference between foreign troops in the country." - Sapa-AFP


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