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Shiite militias control three Iraqi cities
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi insurgents fought U.S. troops at two mosques in Fallujah and held sway over all or part of three southern cities in the worst chaos and violence since Baghdad fell a year ago today. In an ominous turn, kidnappers seized 13 foreign hostages and threatened to burn three Japanese captives alive if Tokyo did not withdraw its troops.
A Marine died Thursday in Fallujah, the Sunni stronghold west of Baghdad. That brought to U.S. death toll across Iraq this week to 40.
The newly invigorated, two-front insurgency raged through its fourth day, and further threatened shaky Iraqi security as the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority prepared to hand sovereignty to an Iraqi government on June 30.
L. Paul Bremer, the chief U.S. administrator of Iraq, warned Shiite pilgrims to beware of danger this weekend at their shrines, recalling the deadly bombings in Karbala and Baghdad that killed nearly 150 during celebrations last month.
TV pictures aired in the Middle East by the Al-Jazeera satellite network and rebroadcast during prime time in Japan showed the three Japanese hostages -- two aid workers and a journalist -- wide-eyed and moaning in terror as their black-clad captors held knives to their throats, shouting "God is Great" in Arabic.
The Japanese government called the abductions "unforgivable" but said they did not justify withdrawal of its 530 troops doing reconstruction work.
Two Arab aid workers from Jerusalem -- one who had once lived in Georgia -- were abducted in a separate incident, and a Syrian-born Canadian humanitarian aid worker for the International Rescue Committee was taken hostage Wednesday by a local militia in Najaf.
Eight South Korean Christian missionaries were seized by gunmen outside Baghdad. Seven were freed after one of them escaped, the Foreign Ministry in Seoul said.
Marines battled insurgents firing automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades in continued heavy fighting at two mosques in Fallujah. U.S. forces have surrounded the city 35 miles west of Baghdad, but opened the blockade for a convoy carrying food and medicine sent by Sunni clerics in Baghdad.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, reported the deaths of three 1st Infantry Division soldiers on Wednesday and Thursday in attacks by Sunni insurgents -- though the circumstances and day of each death were not provided.
The Army said a fourth soldier died from wounds received in an attack last week.
The fighting in Fallujah, nearby Ramadi, and across the south has killed more than 460 Iraqis -- including more than 280 in Fallujah, according to the director of the city's hospital, Rafie Al-Issawi.
The spiraling violence which began Sunday raised questions about whether Iraqi police and security forces would confront the violence and whether U.S. allies would stay the course.
In Najaf, a policeman watched helplessly on Thursday as a pickup truck carrying a dozen heavily armed Shiite militiamen went past his police station -- already in the militia's hands.
"Look, how can we control such a situation?" he asked an Associated Press reporter.
There also were concerns about whether the largely passive Shiite majority would remain peaceful and shun radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's attempts to enlist them against the Americans.
Still, U.S. administrators insist they are making both political and military progress. U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is in Iraq, trying to establish a system to pick an interim Iraqi government. And Marine commanders said they were winning the fight for Fallujah.
"The mission is going particularly well. We made inroads into the city and we are driving the enemy resistance back," said Marine Lt. Col. Greg Olsen. "We're winning every firefight."
But there has been a cost. Twelve Marines died Tuesday in an ambush in Ramadi, just down the road from Fallujah, and four others have died in the fighting west of Baghdad since the weekend, including the Marine who was killed Thursday.
In the south, the al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army militia had full control in the cities of Kut and Kufa and in the central part of Najaf. Police in the cities have abandoned their stations or stood aside as the gunmen roam the streets.
Iraq's interior minister, who leads police and security forces, resigned Thursday at Bremer's request to maintain balance between Sunni and Shiite factions on the governing council.
It was unclear if Nuri al-Badran was forced out because the police were not performing their duties, but he had complained of divided loyalties.
Al-Sadr, reportedly holed up in his office in Najaf, attempted to rally Iraqis -- including Sunnis -- behind him.
"This ordeal has shown that all the Iraqi people are united," he said in a statement issued by his office.
Al-Sadr's force remains unpopular with most Shiites because it is too radical. And so far, there has been little sign of a widespread support for the movement or a surge to join the fight against the Americans.
Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. general in Iraq, acknowledged Thursday there appeared to be links "at the lowest levels" between al-Sadr's Shiite militia and the Sunni Arab insurgency.
Sanchez vowed that coalition forces would move "imminently" to break al-Sadr's hold over Kut, 95 miles southeast of Baghdad, and destroy his militia throughout the country in a new operation named "Resolute Sword."
Sanchez would not say whether U.S. forces would move into southern Iraq to help troops from allied nations whose soldiers control the vast stretch of land reaching to the Persian Gulf.
Ukrainian troops in Kut abandoned their base Wednesday in the face of mortar fire and gunbattles, allowing al-Mahdi Army fighters to sweep in, seize weapons and plant their flag.
Sanchez said the presence of thousands of Shiite pilgrims in Najaf this weekend was hampering coalition forces from moving against militiamen who hold police stations and are in the streets around Shiite shrines in the city center.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims are in southern cities, particularly Karbala, ahead of al-Arbaeen ceremonies this weekend to mark the end of the period of mourning for a 7th-century martyred Shiite saint.
In Baghdad, U.S. forces have battled nightly with the al-Mahdi Army militia in its Sadr City stronghold. Before dawn Thursday, a U.S. helicopter fired on the al-Sadr office, wounding an unknown number of Iraqis and causing heavy damage.
Polish and Bulgarian soldiers drove off Shiites who attacked them near the municipal hall in Karbala during all-night battles, a Polish spokesman said.
In Fallujah, U.S. Marines battled for a second day to seize a mosque that officers say insurgents used as a fire base. Marines called in tanks and warplanes to pound the Sunni gunmen. By nightfall, the American force seized the Abdel-Aziz al-Samarrai mosque for the second night in a row.
The Marines told an Associated Press reporter they had discovered homemade suicide belts in the city and had killed two men wearing such belts. Suicide tactics had not been seen before in the Sunni city.
After a six-hour battle on Wednesday, Marines called in airstrikes before they took the mosque. Sunni rebels moved back in after the Marines left overnight.
The Islamic Clerics Committee, whose offices are next to the mosque, said 40 people, including whole families, were killed in Wednesday's bombing. It occurred at about the time worshippers would have gathered for afternoon prayers.
The Marines deny any civilians were killed, but U.S. military commanders said a large number of gunmen were killed in the day's battle.
Heavy fighting also broke out around another mosque, al-Khulafa, which witnesses said U.S. forces seized. A Marine sniper climbed up the minaret and fired down on gunmen, who shot back with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons, witnesses said.
Four tanks moved in around the al-Khulafa mosque, followed by troops in Humvees and on foot. They fought gunmen until shooting died down around nightfall.