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Commander in Iraq says More International Troops Needed

Commander in Iraq says More International Troops Needed

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- The top U.S. commander in Iraq said Thursday he needs more international forces to deal with an array of potential security threats, including al-Qaida terrorists, Iranian fighters and clashes between ethnic and religious militias.

With Washington pushing a new U.N. resolution aimed at persuading more nations to contribute troops, Russia gave its first signal that it could send peacekeepers to Iraq, and Britain said it was considering whether to increase its force levels.

In Tikrit, meanwhile, U.S. troops battled guerrillas in the streets after a mortar attack. No U.S. casualties were reported.

At a Baghdad news conference, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander here, said that "if a militia or an internal conflict of some nature were to erupt ... that would be a challenge out there that I do not have sufficient forces for."

"There are security challenges that are looming in the future that will require additional forces, and those are issues that with the coalition, and with time, can be resolved," he said.

Sanchez said the coalition lacks sufficient troops to protect Iraq's porous borders or its thousands of miles of highways. Iraqi security forces are being trained to eventually patrol both, he said.

However, Sanchez maintained that no more U.S. troops are needed in Iraq. He said if a sudden conflict arose he would reassign forces to deal with it, but added the Army's existing missions could suffer as a result.

In what could be a more immediate confrontation, Sanchez said U.S. troops would force the Badr Brigade, a Shiite Muslim militia, to disarm if reports of its reactivation prove true.

The Badr Brigade is the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. U.S. troops ordered the brigade disarmed and disbanded early in the occupation. But on Wednesday, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim -- a member of the U.S.-picked Governing Council and brother of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, who was killed in last week's Najaf car bombing -- suggested the militia had rearmed to provide security for Shiites.

Russia gave its first signal that it may send peacekeepers. "It all depends on a specific resolution. I wouldn't exclude it outright," Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said, according to the Interfax news agency.

And in London, Britain's defense secretary Geoff Hoon ordered a review of British troop levels following weeks of heightened insecurity. But Prime Minister Tony Blair said no decision had been made to send additional forces.

"We keep it under review constantly because we've got to get the job done, but there are no decisions that have been taken on additional troops," Blair said at a news conference. Earlier Thursday, Blair's office said the government "will ensure that the British presence in Iraq has the resources it needs to do the job that it's there for."

Hoon's announcement was made after a published report that Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had proposed the deployment of 5,000 more British troops in Iraq. Britain has 11,000 troops in Iraq. Forty-nine British soldiers have died in the war, with 11 of them killed since May 1 when President Bush declared an end to major fighting.

On Wednesday, the United States asked the United Nations to take an expanded role in Iraq's security, political transition and reconstruction. The draft resolution would transform the U.S.-led military force in Iraq into a U.N.-authorized multinational force under a unified command.

Amid the rhetoric over troop levels, new fighting erupted Thursday in Iraq. U.S. forces exchanged fire with Iraqi guerrillas who lobbed at least six mortar rounds at them in intense fighting in downtown Tikrit.

The mortar shells missed their targets, causing no injuries or damage, said Lt. Col. Steve Russell. Russell commands the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 22nd Regiment, which patrols Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, 120 miles north of Baghdad.

An American reconnaissance patrol, responding to the mortar attack, was ambushed with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, directly opposite the 4th Infantry's sprawling headquarters in one of the ousted leader's former palaces.

Bradley fighting vehicles were called in as reinforcements, opening fire on the guerrillas as tracer bullets lit the night sky over Tikrit, which was plunged into darkness. An intense firefight ensued and at least one house was on fire. Helicopters were heard hovering above.

Russell played down the attack, saying no U.S. casualties were reported, but one attacker might have been killed as the rest of the guerrillas disappeared.

"When you have such an incident, it appears to be a spike in activity. But in reality, it's a decline," Russell said.

Also Thursday, U.S. troops acting on a tip from an Iraqi raided a house in Tikrit and detained four people, including a suspected bomb maker. The troops seized weapons and ammunition and a box of explosives, wires, clocks, nails and other bomb making material.

Col. James Hickey, commander of the 4th Infantry's 1st Brigade, said the man, who was not identified, surrendered without a fight. He is suspected of bomb making activities in the Tikrit area and was being interrogated, Hickey said.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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