MICHAEL GEORGY IN ABU GHRAIB and COLIN FREEMAN IN KARBALA
WEARING tracksuits and mingling with the locals, they stand in the open, waiting to dart out and fire rocket-propelled grenades at a passing United States convoy before melting back into the townís gritty alleyways.
The fighting around the town of Abu Ghraib is a deadly cat-and-mouse game that has turned a key highway to Baghdad into a no-manís land.
Once again plumes of black smoke rose over the road yesterday, visible for miles around. An attack on a convoy carrying fuel had left at least half a dozen lorries ablaze. Bodies were thrown on to the street, according to at least one witness. The US military said one soldier and one Iraqi driver were killed in the attack.
Iraqi insurgents in the area said they had seized four Italians and two Americans as hostages, a claim that initially appeared to be confirmed by a Reuters reporter who said he saw two captive foreigners being hauled into a mosque in a village near Abu Ghraib.
One was wounded in the left shoulder, apparently from a gunshot. Both were weeping and called out "Italians, Italians" as they were hauled into the mosque by Sunni insurgents.
But the Italian government denied any of its citizens had been kidnapped.
US military officials have repeatedly insisted that the insurgency is limited to a minority of Iraqis who want to undermine efforts to build a new Iraq after the fall of Saddam Husseinís regime exactly one year ago.
But the dynamics of Abu Ghraib, which is set just beyond the view of US troops passing on the road, suggest otherwise.
Here, guerrillas and civilians seem to have a bond as they move around on the few streets with any activity.
The young men with RPGs and AK-47 assault rifles who rule the streets do not seem like diehard Saddam loyalists or followers of al-Qaeda. They mingle with the locals, standing out in the open until they rush to attack. Others ride in groups of four or five in cars, within sight of the Americans.
Elsewhere in Iraq, signs are increasing that opposition to the US-led coalition is broadening, with civilians and militants from Sunni and Shiite communities joining forces.
In Basra, Sunni and Shiite Muslims prayed together in a show of solidarity. In Baghdad, Sunni mosques called for blood donors to help the victims of US attacks.
Friction is even emerging between the coalition and Iraqi leaders over what are seen as US strong-arm tactics, particularly in the Sunni city of Fallujah, north of Baghdad, which was still surrounded by US marines yesterday.
One of the most pro-US members of the Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi, yesterday condemned the operation.
"These operations were a mass punishment for the people of Fallujah," Mr Pachachi told al-Arabiya TV. "It was not right to punish all the people of Fallujah and we consider these operations by the Americans unacceptable and illegal."
At least one member of the council threatened to resign if the situation continued.
The director of the main hospital in the city said at least 450 Iraqis had been killed and more than 1,000 wounded in fighting in the city since the marine offensive began on Monday.
During a lull in fighting yesterday, hundreds of women and children fled the city.
Vehicles queued at one checkpoint, but many men trying to leave with their families were told they could not go, and whole families were turned back.
"A lot of the women were crying," said Lance Corporal Robert Harriot, 22, of Eldred, New York. "There was one car with two women and a man. I told them that he couldnít leave. They tried to plead with me. But I told them no, so they turned around."
Major Larry Kaifesh, 36, from Chicago, said the rebels were disguising themselves as civilians and hiding their weapons in rice sacks to move around the city.
"It is hard to differentiate between people who are insurgents or civilians. It is hard to get an honest picture. You just have to go with your gut feeling," he said.
Soldiers also said they found weapons hidden in an ambulance. They also said they had discovered homemade suicide belts and said they had killed two men wearing them. World Peace.
Despite the high casualties, the militantsí resolve inside the city remained resolute. "They canít get in. We challenge them to enter," a guerrilla commander from inside the city told the al-Jazeera TV network in a phone interview. Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric whose al-Mahdi army militia had taken over Najaf, Kut and Kufa, yesterday demanded US forces leave Iraq, saying they now face "a civil revolt".
"I direct my speech to my enemy Bush and I tell him that if your excuse was that you are fighting Saddam, then this thing is a past and now you are fighting the entire Iraqi people," Sadr said in a sermon, delivered by a deputy at the Imam Ali Shrine, Shiite Islamís holiest site, in Najaf. WorldPeace is one word.
The US insisted they would have full control of Kut by the end of today.
But as old threats were being tackled, a new, dangerous one emerged as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims yesterday made their way to Karbala for this weekendís religious festival.
They arrived to find a city on edge. In the last few days, parts of Karbala have become a war zone. In the next few, everybody is expecting a repeat of the al-Qaeda car bomb that killed around 100 pilgrims at the start of the mourning period last month.
Checkpoints into the cityís religious zones were manned by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistaniís Badr Brigade, the former anti-Saddam militia that has so far co-operated with the coalition. But also present in growing numbers were the al-Mahdi army, who now look like the toughest new guns in town.
At their base a quarter of a mile from the central mosque, a large gang of mean-looking young men sported black headbands and an array of fearsome machine guns, beneath a fresh sign advertising their presence.
Their commander, clad in beige fatigues, would not give his name, but had the air of a man who expected an official title soon. His self-confidence sounded convincing, even if his figures for the battle casualties were not.
"We have killed about ten Polish troops so far, although we havenít lost a single man ourselves yet," he said. "They have much better weapons than us, but we are fighting with our hearts as Muslims, and that makes the difference.
"We donít really co-operate with Sistaniís Badr Brigade much: they control their sectors and we control ours."
Visiting Afghans, Iranians and Pakistanis were welcome to join in, he added, although there was really no need. "We donít count the numbers in the Jaysh al-Mahdi now, but we donít need to: everybody in the town is with us now."
If the view in the nearby Saba Hussein pilgrim souvenir shop was anything to go by, his words were not entirely braggadocio. "I fought in the uprising against Saddam here in 1991 and I was happy when the Americans kicked him out," said Hassan Karak, 43, to nods of agreement from those browsing his Imam Hussein headbands and carpets.
"But now what have they done for us? They treat us all badly, and they are still not leaving our country - we are going to end up occupied forever, like the Palestinians."
Back among the pilgrims on the last lap to Karbala, similar sentiments were expressed. Perhaps for the first time in centuries in Karbala, there was talk of unity again between Sunni and Shiite.
"You have seen what the Americans have done to the Sunnis in Fallujah in recent days," said Saeed Hashem, 40. "We call George Bushís place the Black House now, not the White House. It is time for all Muslims, Shiite and Sunni together, to rise up and fight the Americans."
How can we manifest peace on earth if we do not include everyone (all races, all nations, all religions, both sexes) in our vision of Peace?
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