Marines urge Fallujah foes to abide by cease-fire

Fighters seize American, demand U.S. withdrawal

April 11, 2004|By Nicholas Riccardi and Tony Perry | Nicholas Riccardi and Tony Perry,LOS ANGELES TIMES

FALLUJAH, Iraq - After vowing never to negotiate with "terrorists" who killed and mutilated four American contractors, the U.S. military took to the airwaves yesterday to ask insurgent fighters in this battle-racked city to join a cease-fire and discuss how to return Fallujah to the control of Iraqi authorities.

Meanwhile, a group of insurgents who kidnapped an American civilian outside Baghdad said in a videotaped message last night that they would mutilate and kill the man within 12 hours unless Americans withdrew from Fallujah. The threat came as other reports circulated that three Japanese civilians kidnapped last week and threatened with death could be released today.

Negotiators from the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council entered Fallujah yesterday, even as American F-16s dropped 500-pound bombs and gunfire rang out in the streets. Late yesterday, after emerging from a meeting with Marine generals, the negotiators said they believed they had made some progress and were hoping for a solid, 12-hour cease-fire today to establish trust between the two sides.

"We want to put the good people of Fallujah in control of their city," said Saif Rahman, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party and an aide to the leader of the negotiating team, Governing Council member Hachim Hassani.

But the difficulty of their task was underscored by the fact that the Marines sent in another battalion to Fallujah yesterday and were pushing deeper into the city even as discussions were under way about pulling out. Although the Marines paused in their push late in the day, U.S. military officials said that if the negotiations fell apart they would take the city.

Military officials said they were launching attacks only as a means of defense against insurgent snipers, who fired heavily on troops with firearms, mortars and grenades. But officials acknowledged there were more air attacks on Fallujah yesterday than at any time during the past week of intense clashes between coalition troops and the mostly Sunni Muslim fighters.

Anthony H. Cordesman, a national security analyst and former Defense Department official, said that the apparent mismatch of new U.S. ground operations amid talk of a cease-fire was a measure of just how volatile the situation in Iraq has become. "Neither the CPA nor the U.S. military fully understands what is going on," he said, referring to the American civilian authority that runs Iraq.

President Bush, vacationing at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, said Marines were taking control of Fallujah "block by block."

"We will win this test of wills and overcome every challenge, because the cause of freedom and security is worth our struggle," Bush said in his weekly radio address, which was taped Friday afternoon and broadcast yesterday.

In the southern city of Kut, skirmishes continued between U.S. troops and members of an armed militia loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

A Kuwaiti cleric connected with Iraq's most revered Shiite religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a statement condemning al-Sadr's uprising, which started last week.

"We condemn the acts of sabotage, chaos and takeover of public property by a group that unfortunately is part of one of Iraq's biggest and best-known families," said Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr Mohri. He was referring to al-Sadr's father, a highly respected cleric who was assassinated in 1999. Al-Sadr, whose militia controls at least two other southern cities, issued a statement saying he was suspending fighting in the holy city of Karbala, where 1.5 million Shiite pilgrims were gathering for the religious holiday of Arbaeen. There were reports that members of the Governing Council and other Shiite leaders were trying to mediate between al-Sadr and the coalition, which has demanded his arrest.

Despite the promise of an armistice for the holiday, there were reports of firearm attacks on Karbala's city hall.

The fighting in Fallujah started Monday, as Marines encircled the Euphrates River city, a stronghold of the Iraqi insurgency. The military had vowed to punish those who shot the four contractors at an intersection two weeks ago.

As the battle wore on, Arabic-language television was saturated with reports of dead women and children, overflowing emergency rooms and general mayhem.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said yesterday that the complaints were a factor in the decision to pursue a cease-fire.

"If, in fact, the moderates - the majority of this country - and their leadership has a view in how we're conducting operations and where we're conducting operations, we must listen to their views," he said at a news conference here.

The news conference was followed by a series of interviews with Arabic-language television networks asking the insurgents if they would comply with a cease-fire.

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