Warplanes, artillery strike Fallujah

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- U.S. warplanes and artillery attacked Sunni insurgents holed up in a slum in a thunderous show of force that rocked Fallujah Tuesday, sending huge plumes of black smoke into the night sky. The assault came after American troops killed 64 gunmen near the southern city of Najaf.

An American soldier was killed Tuesday in Baghdad, raising the U.S. death toll for April to 115 -- the same number lost during the invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein last year. Up to 1,200 Iraqis also have been killed this month.

The second straight night of battles in Fallujah came as the extension of a fragile cease-fire ended in the turbulent city west of Baghdad. Marines have been preparing to begin patrols in the city later this week.

Tuesday's battle appeared far heavier than the previous night's clashes, in which a Marine and eight insurgents were killed -- suggesting U.S. forces were trying to wear down gunmen in the Jolan neighborhood, a district of narrow alleyways and ramshackle houses.

An AC-130, a powerful gunship that can unleash a deluge of ordnance, joined 105mm howitzers in opening up on insurgent targets in the neighborhood. Gunfire and explosions reverberated for nearly two hours, and an eerie orange glow shone over the area while showers of sparks descended like fireworks.

Fires were visible in the Jolan neighborhood, and mosque loudspeakers elsewhere in the city called for firefighters. U.S. aircraft dropped white leaflets over Fallujah before nightfall, calling on insurgents to give up.

"Surrender, you are surrounded," the leaflets said. "If you are a terrorist, beware, because your last day was yesterday. In order to spare your life end your actions and surrender to coalition forces now. We are coming to arrest you."

Fighting also broke out in Baghdad and in the south, where U.S. forces are in a standoff with militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is wanted on murder charges for allegedly killing a fellow cleric.

U.S. forces killed 64 Iraqis on Monday and Tuesday in battles with militiamen outside the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said.

The United States is trying to avoid a resurgence of the intense fighting ahead of June 30 -- the date for installation of a new Iraqi government.

At the United Nations, U.N. envoy to Iraq Lakhdar Brahimi briefed the U.N. Security Council on plans for a caretaker government that would take over from the U.S.-picked Governing Council. He also warned that there would be a "very bloody confrontation" unless an agreement was reached to end fighting in Fallujah.

John Negroponte, who has been nominated as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, acknowledged Tuesday that the caretaker government would have limited powers because the Iraqi security forces were not yet strong enough. The United States would keep control of security forces, and the new government may not have the authority to pass laws, he told a Senate panel in Washington.

Several U.S.-allied Iraqi leaders demanded the government receive full sovereignty.

Mohsen Abdel-Hamid, a Sunni Arab on the Governing Council, said the prospect of the United States retaining some sovereignty is "not acceptable, this is totally rejected."

If the Americans do not respect agreements on giving complete sovereignty, "then the Iraqi people know what route to take," he said.

In other developments Tuesday:

A Red Cross team visited Saddam Hussein to see his conditions in U.S. custody, the second such visit by the aid agency since Saddam was detained in December. Wednesday is Saddam's 67th birthday.

A defense official said authorities were investigating whether a U.S. team looking for weapons of mass destruction was lured into a trap in Baghdad when a building they were searching exploded Monday, killing two Americans.

In Madrid, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said Spain has completed its troop withdrawal. "We should not have gone to Iraq. Therefore, we had to return as soon as possible," he said to applause in parliament.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Britain has no plans to send more forces to Iraq. Britain now has 7,500 troops in Iraq, the second-largest force after the United States.

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