U.S. Increases Military Strength in Fallujah  
FOX-News / AP               April 10, 2004

FALLUJAH, Iraq — Hundreds of reinforcements joined Marines besieging Fallujah (search) on Saturday, and the U.S. military said it would move to take the city if cease-fire talks fail. Fighting raged through the center of the country, killing 40 Iraqis and an American airman.

In what could be a step toward quelling the violence, the rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (search) is negotiating with several members of the Iraqi Governing Council to end the Shiite uprising in the center and south of Baghdad, a member of the council told Reuters.

Militants threatened to kill and mutilate an American civilian they captured Friday if U.S. troops in Fallujah don't withdraw.

Gunfire crackled in the city, even as Iraqi government negotiators met with Fallujah leaders to persuade them to hand over militants who killed and mutilated four Americans in here on March 31. Insurgents offered to call a truce if U.S. troops leave Fallujah — a condition the Americans appeared unlikely to accept.

Nearly 60,000 Fallujah residents, about a third of the population, have fled over the past two days, a Marine commander said.

Elsewhere, militants hit a U.S. air base with mortars in Balad (search), north of Baghdad, killing an airman. Other fighters attacked government buildings and police stations in Baqouba, setting off firefights in which about 40 Iraqis were killed. Several U.S. troops were wounded, said Capt. Issam Bornales, spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade.

Insurgents also fought U.S. troops in Baghdad's northern, mainly Sunni neighborhood of al-Azamiyah.

Masked gunmen caused havoc on the road between Baghdad and Fallujah, a key supply route, rocketing a second fuel convoy in the area in as many days. Nearby, guerrillas hit a U.S. tank with an rocket-propelled grenade, setting it ablaze.

Militants threatened to kill an American hostage, whose capture Friday during another convoy ambush in area was the latest in a series of kidnappings in Iraq.

"Our only demand is to remove the siege from the city of mosques," a spokesman said in a videotape given to the Al-Jazeera television network that shows footage of the hostage.

"If you don't respond within 12 hours ... he will be treated worse than those who were killed and burned in Fallujah" — referring to the Americans whose bodies were mutilated and two of them hanged from a Euphrates River bridge.

On the tape, the hostage gives his name, his age and his home state. Part the footage has no audio but shows him standing in front of an Iraqi flag emblazoned with the words "Allahu Akbar," or God is great. A TV announcer quotes him as saying his captors were not mistreating him.

"I am in good shape. I work for a private company that supports the military action," the voice-over says, a likely reference to private U.S. firms that provide security in Iraq.

"I want my family to know that these people are taking care of me, and provide me with food, water and a place to sleep."

Two U.S. servicemembers and several contract employees were still unaccounted for from attacks on Friday, a Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Commander Dan Hetlage, said Saturday.

Militants also continued to hold hostage two aid workers — a Canadian and an Arab from Jerusalem — but announced they would free three Japanese civilians.

The kidnappers of the Japanese, identifying themselves as the "Muhahedeen Squadron (search)," said they made the decision after mediation by the Islamic Clerics Committee, a Sunni organization, Al-Jazeera reported.

In a statement, the kidnappers urged the Japanese public to press their government to withdraw its troops from Iraq, the station said.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt (search) called on Fallujah's insurgents to join a bilateral cease-fire. But he said a third battalion of Marines had moved to the city — joining two battalions totaling 1,200 troops and a battalion of nearly 900 Iraqi security forces.

Kimmitt warned that if talks between city leaders and members of the Iraqi Governing Council failed, the military would consider renewing its assault on Fallujah. Marine commanders were skeptical negotiations would succeed.

"The prospect of some city father walking in and making 'Joe Jihadi' give himself up are pretty slim," said Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne, commander of the 1st Batallion, 5th Marine Regiment.

"What is coming is the destruction of anti-coalition forces in Fallujah ... they have two choices: Submit or die," he told reporters.

During negotiations, insurgents agreed through representatives to call a cease-fire starting Sunday morning if U.S. troops withdraw outside city limits, said council member Mahmoud Othman.

Kimmitt said Marines were respecting a unilateral halt in offensive operations called Friday but said gunmen continued to fire on troops, who were responding.

"Were we not at this point observing suspension of offensive operations ... it could well have been that we would have had the entire the city by this point," Kimmitt told reporters in Baghdad.

Asked what he hoped from the negotiations — in which U.S. officials were not taking part — Kimmitt said: "We would like to hear that they will lay down their arms ... (and) are prepared to turn over the perpetrators of the attacks on the Americans."

He said 60 insurgents have been captured in the Fallujah campaign so far, including five foreign Arabs.

In the north, the head of the Iraqi Red Crescent's Irbil office, Barzan Umer Mantik, and his wife were attacked and killed Saturday in their car in the nearby city of Mosul, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

Also, the German Foreign Ministry said two security agents from its embassy in Baghdad have been missing for several days. It gave no details, but German TV stations reported that the missing were ambushed Wednesday while on a routine trip from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad. Station ARD said the two were agents with GSG-9, a counterterrorism unit trained in freeing hostages and other commando missions.

In the south, the militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr remained in control of Karbala and nearby Najaf and Kufa. Braced for an American assault, hundreds of militiamen with assault rifles roamed the streets and guarded makeshift checkpoints.

In anticipation of violence and because of a major religious occasion this weekend, most stores in Najaf and Kufa were closed. Some owners emptied shops of goods, storing them at home for fear of looting.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims are in Karbala and other Shiite cities to mark al-Arbaeen, the end of the mourning period for a 7th-century martyred Shiite saint. Ceremonies last until Sunday night.

U.S. forces continued to fight gunmen in Kut, where hundreds of troops moved in Friday to wrest the city from the control of al-Sadr's militia. An AC-130 gunship and helicopters blasted militia positions as the Americans seized police stations and government buildings, Kimmitt said.

Kimmitt said seven militiamen were killed and 74 captured. Hospital officials in Kut said 23 Iraqis have been killed in clashes between al-Sadr supporters and U.S. forces since the incursion began.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, meanwhile, made a surprise visit to Italian troops in the southern city of Nasiriyah, which saw fighting with al-Sadr followers earlier in the week but has largely become quiet in the meantime.

"I bring you the embrace of the Italians," he told the troops. "Your actions are in support of peace, for the fight against terrorism, and in defense of democracy."

The U.S. military's death toll from the week of fighting across the country stood at 47. The fighting has killed more than 500 Iraqis — including more than 280 in Fallujah, a hospital official said. At least 648 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.