12 Marines die in fierce fighting

Iraqi insurgents attack position in Ramadi

heavy casualties on both sides

U.S. forces battle into Fallujah

At least 120 Iraqis are killed in fighting across southern Iraq

April 07, 2004|By Alissa J. Rubin | Alissa J. Rubin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NAJAF, Iraq - An armed Shiite Muslim revolt intensified across southern Iraq yesterday, spreading to previously quiet areas and leaving a dozen Marines dead in one clash.

The U.S.-led coalition was struggling to contain the strife in Sunni and Shiite Muslim areas after three days of fighting claimed the lives of 30 Americans, two other coalition troops and at least 120 Iraqis.

Some of the heaviest fighting yesterday occurred in the Sunni Triangle city of Ramadi when insurgents attacked a Marine position near the provincial governor's palace, killing a dozen Marines and wounding 20 more, according to a Pentagon official in Washington.

The official said Marines inflicted "heavy casualties" on the insurgents but gave no details.

Marines in tanks, Humvees and helicopters also engaged in intense battles with insurgents in the nearby besieged city of Fallujah, killing nearly three dozen Iraqis.

Marines drove into the center of the Sunni city in heavy fighting before pulling back before nightfall. The assault had been promised after the killings and mutilations of four American civilians there last week.

U.S. warplanes firing rockets destroyed four houses in Fallujah after nightfall, witnesses said. A doctor said 26 Iraqis, including women and children, were killed and 30 wounded in that strike. Their deaths brought to 34 the number of Iraqis killed in Fallujah yesterday.

In southern Iraq, militants allied to Muqtada al-Sadr, a virulently anti-American Shiite cleric, staged firefights in four major cities, taking over government buildings and vowing to help end the U.S. occupation.

The uprising by Shiite militants presented a scenario long feared: a loss of control over the majority Shiites, who are considered essential to an orderly handover of power to Iraqis.

The spreading revolt presents new worries for the Bush administration. To quell the violence, the United States might have to resort to heavy force. That could serve to consolidate anti-American sentiment and set off a cycle of retaliation.

At his ranch near Crawford, Texas, President Bush held a 20-minute telephone conference on the fast-breaking events in Iraq with top Cabinet officials including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, national security adviser Condoleeza Rice and Richard B. Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Bush "received an update about the offensive military action" in Fallujah and other parts of Iraq and was told that U.S. and coalition troops were "performing well," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

In Baghdad, U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III, while trying to play down the extent of the Shiite rebellion, suggested that the coalition's entire mission is now at stake.

"The dividing line in Iraq now is the people who support democracy and the people who want to return to an Iraq where power is determined by the guy with the guns," Bremer said in an interview on NBC's Today.

U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington said their plan for the June 30 handover remained in place. Their near-term priority is to defeat the insurgency and support Iraqis friendly to the coalition.

"There are some elements that need to be confronted, the option that cannot be considered is waiting to fight them another day," said a senior U.S. official in Baghdad.

U.S. officials acknowledged that more bloodshed might not be avoidable.

"We have more people, more power, more money than them; we will win," the senior U.S. official said. "It's a matter of how aggressively they fight. We have to demonstrate we are committed to shutting them down."

During the past several days, radical Sunni and Shiite groups - former rivals - have praised one another's attacks on coalition troops and vowed to stand shoulder to shoulder against the occupation.

So far the only Iraqis to stand with the coalition are members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, who in a news conference yesterday said they were resolute about cracking down on all militants.

News of the dozen Marine deaths came from Washington where a defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States suffered the casualties in an uprising in Ramadi, west of Baghdad.

"There's been a number of casualties this week, and that's because we're conducting offensive operations," the official said.

The United States unsealed a warrant for al-Sadr's arrest earlier this week, saying he bore responsibility for the killing of a rival cleric last April.

Al-Sadr, who was holed up at a mosque in Kufa, moved overnight Monday to Najaf and took refuge in the Imam Ali shrine. The move appeared calculated to heighten his profile among Shiites for whom Najaf is the most holy city in Iraq.

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