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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- The U.S. military closed down two major highways into Baghdad on Saturday in the latest disruption caused by intensified attacks by anti-U.S. insurgents. U.S. and Iraqi negotiators reported progress in talks aimed at easing the fighting in Fallujah, while the besieged city saw its quietest day yet.
Elsewhere, U.S. Marines fought pitched battles against a bout 150 gunmen in Qaim, near the Syrian border, the city police chief said. Six Marines and scores of insurgents were killed in the 14-hour battle, an embedded journalist from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. A U.S. military spokesman could not confirm the report.
Sections of the two highways, north and south of the capital, were closed off to repair damage from a mounting number of roadside bombs. Commanders suggested the routes remained vulnerable to attacks by insurgents who have been targeting U.S. military supply lines.
"We've got to fix those roads, we've also got to protect those roads," Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told reporters in Baghdad.
The military warned that civilians found on the closed sections "may be considered to be anti-coalition forces" and come under U.S. fire. Kimmitt said civilians would be redirected around the closed sections.
"There are many ways to get into Baghdad and many ways for getting out of Baghdad," he said.
Attacks by gunmen at the western, northern and southern entrances to the city have targeted key military supply lines, forcing the repeated closure of the main Baghdad-Amman road through the violent western district of Abu Ghraib.
On Friday, militants showed video of a soldier captured during one such attack on April 9. Army Pfc. Keith M. Maupin of Batavia, Ohio, was captured in the same raid in which fighters seized truck driver Thomas Hamill, of Macon, Miss.
Meanwhile, two Japanese hostages -- an aid worker and a freelance journalist -- were released Saturday to the same group of Islamic clerics who negotiated the freedom of three Japanese hostages earlier this week.
This month has seen the worst violence in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein last year. U.S.-led forces are battling Sunni insurgents in Fallujah and a Shiite militia in the south.
Gunfire was nearly halted in Fallujah on Friday night, and the quiet continued through Saturday. A nominal truce since April 11 had been repeatedly shaken by nighttime battles as both insurgents and Marines dug in.
Talks toward ending the standoff were to resume Monday, but the top U.S. military negotiator suggested their continuation depended on continued quiet.
"I can't stress enough how key it is for the cease-fire to hold over the next 24 to 48 hours," said Maj. Gen. Joseph Weber, the top U.S. military negotiator.
The military announced Saturday that a U.S. soldier was killed two days earlier when his patrol hit an anti-tank mine near Tikrit, north of Baghdad. His death brought to 89 the number of U.S. troops killed in violence since April 1.
More than 1,000 Iraqis have been killed. At least 686 U.S. servicemembers have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. That figure does not include the six Marines reported killed near the Syrian border.
In the south, U.S. troops skirmished for a second day with militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. His aides said Iraqi-led mediation aimed at resolving a standoff with the Americans had broken down.
Militiamen attacked two U.S. Humvees outside Najaf, sparking a battle, witnesses said. Al-Sadr loyalists also fired mortars at the Spanish army base in the city, but there were no casualties.
A coalition soldier -- apparently a member of the Spanish-led force in the city -- was killed the night before in fighting with the militia, the U.S. military said.
Fighting on Friday also killed five militiamen, the military said. Soon after clashes Friday morning, a U.S. tank opened fire with a machine gun on a car passing its convoy, killing two civilians. An AP reporter witnessed the shooting.
A senior Shiite cleric warned Saturday that the standoff could deteriorate "into a war that will have terrible effects ... a war that will not be in the interest of anyone, especially coalition forces."
Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi al-Modaresi, a moderate cleric, said that if U.S. forces move to capture al-Sadr, it would "incite strong anger" among Iraq's majority Shiite majority.
U.S. commanders have said they have no plans for the time being to enter Najaf -- Iraq's holiest Shiite city -- where al-Sadr's office is located. Some 2,500 U.S. troops deployed this week to the outskirts of Najaf on a mission to kill or capture the cleric.
A top al-Sadr aide, Jabir al-Khafaji, said mediations by Iraqi politicians had ended because of U.S. conditions that the cleric's al-Mahdi Army milita be disbanded.
U.S. forces at Najaf appear to be holding back their firepower to allow moderate clerics to bring pressure against al-Sadr, avoiding an assault on Najaf.
Negotiations outside Fallujah focused on strengthening a fragile truce, allowing residents access to hospitals and arranging the return of tens of thousands who have fled the city.
The two sides are also working on a way to carry out the handover of the killers of four American civilians, whose slaying and mutilation sparked the Marine assault on Fallujah, launched on April 5, a representative of the Iraqi Governing Council at the talks said.
"We have a mechanism for that, and when we conclude our talks we will announce that," Hashem al-Hassani told reporters after six hours of negotiations ended.
If the cease-fire holds and talks continue, negotiators have suggested they could move on to tackle more extensive moves sought by the Americans: the surrender of masses of weapons in the hands of insurgents, the return of police and Iraqi security forces to their posts and the handover of "terrorists and foreign militants."
"We are going to stabilize Fallujah," U.S. coalition spokesman Dan Senor said. "Those individuals must depart and in most cases they must be turned over to us."
In the first round of talks Friday, U.S. officials agreed to reposition troops to allow Fallujah residents better access to hospitals.
At the southern entrance to Fallujah, U.S. troops turned back a convoy of trucks bearing humanitarian supplies sent by the Iraqi Commerce Ministry.
In other violence Saturday:
-- A mortar fired into a central Baghdad neighborhood killed a Sudanese man, and in a separate attack, a rocket hit a house in the southern district of Abu Dhseer, killing an Iraqi.
-- Gunmen killed two Kurds in the northern city of Kirkuk in what police Brig. Gen. Mohammed Amin called an attempt to heighten ethnic tensions in the city, where Kurds, Arabs and other ethnic groups have been vying for influence.
AP correspondents Lourdes Navarro in Fallujah and Bassem Mroue in Baghdad contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)