Truce holds as Fallujah buries dead

In Baghdad, insurgents shoot down helicopter, killing 2 crew members

More reports of kidnappings

U.S. officials open door to talks with radical cleric

April 12, 2004|By Nicholas Riccardi and Tony Perry | Nicholas Riccardi and Tony Perry,LOS ANGELES TIMES

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- A patchy cease-fire took hold in this battle-torn city yesterday as U.S. officials said they were seeking "political" solutions to pacify the area and disband a militia loyal to an anti-American cleric.

The move to stress negotiations over military action marked a significant tactical shift for U.S. officials here, who until the weekend had been vowing to crush the two insurgencies threatening Iraq's stability.

The change came as fighters appeared to extend their influence closer to the capital yesterday, shooting down an Apache helicopter about 3 miles from Baghdad's airport and cutting off communications between military posts on a key road leading west from the city.

Two soldiers were killed when the helicopter crashed. In addition, the military announced that at least 12 other troops died in previously unreported incidents Friday and Saturday, including ferocious battles in the city of Baquba, north of Baghdad.

But Fallujah was the quietest it has been since the U.S. offensive began. Residents took advantage of the lull in fighting to bury their dead -- estimated by Iraqis at more than 600 -- in two soccer fields.

Meanwhile, insurgents continued to abduct foreign civilians yesterday, with China's official news agency reporting that seven of its citizens had been taken hostage in central Iraq. Arab television showed a tape of masked men holding eight Indian, Pakistani and Turkish citizens whom they said had been caught driving coalition supply trucks, but the gunmen said the captives would be released.

A Briton who had been seized last week, apparently by a different group, was freed. There was no word on the fate of an American or three Japanese whose captors had threatened to kill them over the weekend.

The continuing violence has brought U.S. reconstruction efforts and work toward the planned June 30 transition to Iraqi sovereignty to a virtual halt.

More than 60 U.S. service members have died in Iraq since April 4, when Marines launched their operation to regain control of Fallujah and militiamen loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr began attacking police posts and government buildings.

President Bush, visiting soldiers wounded in Iraq at a hospital at Fort Hood, Texas, appeared somber and said it had been "a tough week." L. Paul Bremer III, the top U.S. representative in Iraq, called the situation an "ongoing crisis."

In Baghdad, U.S. officials indicated that concern about public anger over their offensive operations -- and fear that further backlash could worsen the situation -- had prompted them to reconsider their tactics.

"The most important thing to understand at this point is that the coalition forces have suspended offensive operations. They are permitting the political track and the discussion track to go forward," said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt.

In Fallujah, a week of intense fighting tapered off early yesterday as the cease-fire, brokered overnight by two members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and local sheiks and clerics, took hold. The lead negotiator, interim council member Hachem Hassani, said late yesterday that the discussions were going well and the cease-fire was extending into today.

For the moment, the focus was almost entirely on stopping the fighting; there was no talk of what the next steps might be, and it was unclear what terms would be acceptable both to the United States and to the Iraqis. Forces hostile to the U.S. occupation have controlled the city for most of the past year and a variety of U.S. approaches have failed either to co-opt or uproot them.

The difficulty of resolving the Fallujah standoff was evident in the comments of Kimmitt, who said the United States was now hoping for "a political track to re-establish legitimate Iraqi control over that city" but added that U.S. troops there would stick to their positions and be ready to resume their offensive if talks fail.

"These are positions the Marines fought for and died for," Kimmitt said. "Those would be very good positions from which the Marines could finish the attack on Fallujah."

Kimmitt declined to state what the U.S. terms were in the negotiations, saying he didn't want to comment while discussions were continuing.

U.S. officials have in recent days reiterated their demands that they be given custody of those behind the killing and mutilation of four contractors slain in the city 12 days ago, as well as any non-Iraqi fighters who may be attacking U.S. forces.

Kimmitt said not all the insurgents have honored the cease-fire, likely because they do not have a centralized organization that can order a halt to attacks. At least two Marines were injured by sniper fire yesterday, and four Iraqis were reported killed, but the city was much quieter than it has been in days.

Kimmitt and Dan Senor, the top spokesman for the U.S. civilian authority that runs Iraq, said the fighting was halted because of complaints from Governing Council members about innocents getting caught in the crossfire.

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