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8 U.S. Troops, 30 Iraqis Die in Fighting

8 U.S. Troops, 30 Iraqis Die in Fighting

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FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) -- U.S. troops battled guerrillas Tuesday on the edge of Fallujah in an operation to crush the insurgency there, as violence inspired by supporters of an anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric again spread to at least four cities, with 30 Iraqis killed.

The military reported five Marines and three soldiers killed in operations over the past two days. A Ukrainian soldier also died Monday in a battle in Kut, southeast of Baghdad.

After a weekend of countrywide violence sparked primarily by followers of the fiery Muqtada al-Sadr, fighting again was reported in Nasiriyah, Kut, Amarah and northern Baghdad. There were 15 Iraqis killed in Nasiriyah and another 15 dead in Amarah, coalition military officials said.

Al-Sadr left his fortress-like complex Tuesday, vowing to shed his own blood in the drive to oust the American occupation.

U.S. officials have suggested they will move soon to arrest al-Sadr, who announced Tuesday he left a mosque in the city of Kufa, south of Baghdad, where he has been holed up since Sunday. He is surrounded by militiamen pledging to resist any attempt to capture him.

Al-Sadr moved to his office in the nearby city of Najaf, in an alley near the city's holiest shrine, according to a top aide, Sheik Qays al-Khaz'ali.

"I have pledged not to allow a drop of blood to be shed except my own," al-Sadr said in a statement. "I'm prepared to have my own blood shed for what is holy to me."

He said he was moving to avoid bloodshed in a mosque. "I feared that the sanctity of a glorious and esteemed mosque would be violated by scum and evil people," he said. The Americans "will have no qualms to embark on such actions."

In a series of U.S. television interviews Tuesday, L. Paul Bremer, the top civilian administrator in Iraq, conceded not all was going smoothly as the coalition approached a June 30 handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis.

"We have problems, there's no hiding that. But basically Iraq is on track to realize the kind of Iraq that Iraqis want and Americans want, which is a democratic Iraq," Bremer said on ABC's "Good Morning America."

But he said continuing disturbances would not affect the American handover schedule.

"June 30 is the date. We're going to stick to it," he said.

A U.S. official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said all American officials in Iraq, including those working for the Coalition Provisional Authority, had been told to remain inside their compounds since Monday because of security worries. It was not clear how long the rule would remained in place.

The military did not give details on the five deaths, saying only that they occurred in Anbar province, home to Fallujah. Witnesses reported another American had been killed in Tuesday's fighting, but that report could not immediately be confirmed.

The deaths in the past two days brought to at least 614 the number of Americans killed in Iraq since the war began.

The bulk of the coalition force has remained on Fallujah's edge, apparently held at bay by tough resistance from anti-American fighters against Marine forays probing the outskirts.

American commanders have vowed to root out insurgents after last week's slaying and mutilation of four American civilians. Scenes of Iraqis dragging charred bodies through the streets and hanging two of them from a bridge Wednesday raised revulsion in the United States and showed the depth of anti-U.S. sentiment in the city.

The assault on Fallujah, west of Baghdad, coincides with a tougher U.S. stand on the fiercely anti-American al-Sadr, who has built up a private militia, the al-Mahdi Army.

Al-Sadr's militiamen clashed with coalition troops Sunday in Baghdad and outside the city of Najaf, to the south, in fierce fighting that killed 61 people, including eight American soldiers. Clashes also broke out Monday in a northern Baghdad neighborhood.

The deaths of the three U.S. soldiers announced Tuesday occurred in a neighborhood near the scene of Monday's fighting, but the military did not release details.

The confrontation with al-Sadr and the offensive against Fallujah appeared to be a tougher approach by U.S. forces ahead of the June 30 handover.

Violence continued Tuesday in the southern cities of Amarah and Nasiriyah.

In Nasiriyah, 15 Iraqis were killed and 35 wounded in clashes with Italian troops, an Italian news agency reported. Twelve Italians troops were slightly wounded, the Italian Defense Ministry reported.

The Apcom agency quoted U.S.-led coalition spokeswoman Paola Della Casa as saying the Iraqi attackers used civilians as human shields during the attack. She said a woman and two children were among the dead.

According to the Defense Ministry in Rome, gunmen opened fire on Italian forces patrolling the streets and bridges over the Euphrates after violent protests in the area. The Italians returned fire, and at the end of the gunbattle regained control of the main bridges, said a statement by the Defense Ministry.

The ministry said the coalition headquarters building in Nasiriyah also came under attack.

Fighting overnight in Amarah between al-Sadr's followers and British troops kills 15 Iraqis and wounded eight, said coalition spokesman Wun Hornbyckle.

In the Shiite city of Kut, a Ukrainian soldier was killed and five were wounded when militants attacked an armored personnel carrier, the Defense Ministry said. Ukraine has about 1,650 troops in Iraq, the third-largest contingent among countries that did not take part in last year's major combat operations.

About 500 Japanese soldiers stationed in Samawah in the far south have been ordered to halt work on repairing roads and other humanitarian activities outside the safety of their camp until after festivities for the Shiite holy day of Arbaeen on April 11, Kyodo News reported.

After Sunday's violence, Bremer canceled a trip to Washington this week, a Senate aide said Monday. No reason was given, the aide said.

A senior officer in Washington said U.S. military commanders have begun studying how they might increase troops in Iraq should violence spread.

In Fallujah, explosions and gunfire were heard through the night Monday and into Tuesday morning, apparently U.S. troops shelling targets and clashing with guerrillas as Marines probed the outskirts with reconnaissance patrols.

A force of Marines pushed into an eastern neighborhood, clashing with guerrillas Tuesday. Gunmen carrying automatic weapons were seen in the streets. Guerrilla fire set one vehicle ablaze, said a witness, Issam Mahmoud, who said a soldier inside was killed. There was no immediate confirmation of the death.

Troops broke into houses in the neighborhood, carrying out searches, and entered a mosque, witnesses said.

U.S. troops waiting on the northern edge of Fallujah for orders to move in came under fire from nearby houses Tuesday, wounding two Marines. Tanks and Humvees moved into the neighborhood where the fire came from, and the sound of tank fire was later heard.

The military reported six Iraqis killed in fighting Monday, saying all were guerrillas, though residents said five of them were killed when helicopters hit a residential area.

In the nearby city of Ramadi, another hotbed of guerrilla activity 24 miles west of Fallujah, U.S. troops and insurgents clashed on a downtown street. One Iraqi was killed and three wounded, doctors said.

The offensive against Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, targets Sunni Muslim insurgents who have been waging a campaign of violence against U.S. forces and their allies for months.

The showdown with al-Sadr could increase tensions with Iraq's Shiite majority, although most Shiites reject the 30-year-old al-Sadr as a renegade and look to older, more moderate clerics for leaderships. U.S. officials appear to be counting on Shiites not to

rally around al-Sadr if they move against him.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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