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FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) -- A series of explosions and gunfire rocked Fallujah on Wednesday in new fighting. the day after a heavy battle in which U.S. warplanes and artillery pounded the city in a show of force against Sunni insurgents holed up in a slum.
Gunfire and mortar blasts could be heard for more than an hour from southwestern Fallujah in the afternoon, then three thunderous explosions shook the area as warplanes circled overhead. Two black plumes of smoke rose over the area, as heavy machine-gun fire continued.
Despite three straight days of battles, including a Tuesday night attack that produced dramatic TV video of explosions lighting the sky, U.S. officials say they are pushing ahead with negotiations to resolve the Fallujah standoff rather than launch an all-out offensive. Iraqi police took up posts in parts of the city, laying the groundwork for Marine patrols to begin circulating to establish control.
After sunrise, at least eight destroyed houses could be seen in the Golan neighborhood. Hospitals reported Wednesday that only two people were wounded in the fighting. Militants, however, often do not evacuate their casualties to hospitals fearing that the injured could be arrested by American forces.
"We're going to continue to push the political track as far as it's going to take us. And if it doesn't take us far enough, we're prepared to use military means," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told ABC's "Good Morning America."
He stressed at a briefing that the cease-fire was continuing and that Marines were not taking offensive actions but were "in a series of defensive responses" to the insurgents.
In southern Iraq, meanwhile, gunmen ambushed a Ukrainian convoy outside the city of Kut, barraging it with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. One Ukrainian was killed and two wounded, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said. Kimmitt said a second coalition soldier later died from his wounds in that attack.
Shiite militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr succeeded in driving Ukrainian peacekeepers out of Kut earlier this month, but U.S. troops later swept into the city, pushing out most of the militiamen.
U.S. troops aiming to capture al-Sadr and suppress his militia began Wednesday to gradually expand their operations out of their base in the holy city of Najaf. Soldiers set up checkpoints on the road outside the base -- the main route between the center of Najaf and the center of neighboring Kufa.
The military is seeking to increase pressure on al-Sadr but is treading carefully, promising to stay away from sacred Shiite sites at the heart of the city. The base, where U.S. troops moved in earlier this week, is about three miles from the shrines.
Attacks across the country are down, compared with the first two weeks of April, as U.S. officials try to find negotiated solutions at Fallujah and against al-Sadr. But violence still flares regularly.
In northern Iraq, a U.S. soldier was killed in an ambush on troops responding to a roadside bombing, the military reported Wednesday. The Tuesday attack was near the city of Tel Afar, 240 miles northeast of Baghdad, where a bomb hit a coalition patrol.
The soldier's death brought to 116 the number of U.S. servicemembers killed in combat this month, the bloodiest month for American forces in Iraq. At least 725 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. Up to 1,200 Iraqis also have been killed this month.
Saddam Hussein's 67th birthday was Wednesday, his first in U.S. detention at an undisclosed location since being captured by American troops in December. In his hometown of Tikrit, there were no apparent signs of celebration, and schools and universities were closed.
Outside Baghdad, gunmen opened fire on a military convoy headed in the direction of Fallujah, killing or wounding at least two people.
After the attack, a cargo truck was left with its tires shot out and windshield pockmarked with bullets. Pools of blood were on either side of the truck's cab, and U.S. soldiers at the scene said two casualties were taken away. Their nationalities were unknown.
Wednesday's fighting in Fallujah came after a heavy Tuesday night battle against insurgents holed up in the northern neighborhood of Golan, a slum area of tight alleyways. AC-130 gunships and artillery pounded insurgent targets in Golan for more than an hour, sending smoke and orange flames into the sky.
Kimmitt said the battle was sparked when troops saw two trucks moving through the city with their lights off in an area where insurgents were active earlier in the day.
The AC-130s destroyed the trucks, and ammunition in the trucks exploded, Kimmitt said.
The length of the Tuesday night barrage suggested U.S. forces are seeking to wear down the insurgents in Golan. Elsewhere in the city, the military is preparing to send in patrols Thursday to establish control. Those will avoid the Golan area, commanders say.
On Monday, insurgents attacked Marines in the neighborhood, killing one American in a battle that ended when a tank destroyed a mosque's minaret from which U.S. commanders said insurgents were firing. Eight Iraqis were killed.
Several families were seen fleeing the city Wednesday. The fighting came at the end of a truce in which Marines outside of the city promised not to assault Fallujah if gunmen gave up their arms. U.S. commanders have said that insurgents have only given up unusable weapons.
"I was pinning some hope on the truce. The American air bombing dashed my hopes," Ali Muzel said as he escorted his wife and five children to Baghdad.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair defended U.S. tactics in Fallujah, rejecting an opposition legislator's assertion that Tuesday's battle amounted to the "murder or mutilation of hundreds of women had children."
Blair said there were large numbers of well-armed insurgents in Fallujah and "it is right that the American forces try to make sure that order is restored to that city."
South of Baghdad, U.S. forces set up checkpoints in Najaf, just outside their base. Another checkpoint was established on a bridge outside Kufa -- scene of a heavy battle Monday in which 64 Iraqis were killed.
"They took a heavy beating," said Col. Brad May, commander of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment. "Our goal ... is to continue to pressure al-Sadr and his militia. We are not going away."
But he emphasized that troops have "been very careful to respect" shrines in Kufa and Najaf.
In Baghdad, U.S.-picked Iraqi officials Wednesday unveiled a redesign of the country's flag from one that had been presented two days earlier, with slight differences following protests that the banner recalled Israel's.
The design was similar to the first one: two blue stripes along the bottom with a yellow stripe between them, and a crescent above them in a white field. But the stripes and crescent were a considerably darker shade of blue than the original version published in an Iraqi newspaper.
Many had said the light blue stripes were too reminiscent of light blue bands on the Israeli flag, and hundreds of university students marched in protest Wednesday in Mosul.
Meanwhile, three Italian hostages being held in Iraq are fine and will probably be freed, a Chaldean Catholic official based in Baghdad told the SIR news service of the Italian Bishops Conference.
Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly, the spiritual leader of about 1 million Chaldean Catholics worldwide, has been working to free three Italian security guards abducted April 12. A fourth Italian hostage was killed shortly after his abduction.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)