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U.S. Reclaims Major Roads, Presses Cleric

Times Staff Writers

U.S. forces used heavy firepower Monday to regain control of strategic roads around Iraq as about 2,500 American soldiers massed outside this southern city in an attempt to force the surrender of a Shiite cleric and his militias.

The troop buildup came as Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, requested as many as 10,000 new troops to prevent another round of insurgencies challenging American authority in Iraq.

Despite sporadic fighting in the south and west of the country, U.S. officials said they were giving negotiations a chance before moving against Sunni militiamen in Fallouja, where a tense cease-fire held for a second day, and Shiite fighters here who are loyal to cleric Muqtada Sadr. But top U.S. commanders made it clear that time was running out for a settlement with the cleric.

“The mission of U.S. forces is to kill or capture Muqtada Sadr,” said Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of ground forces in Iraq.

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The threat came as the anti-American Shiite cleric ordered his followers to leave the government offices they had been occupying in several cities.

The last two weeks have been among the most deadly since the war began -- an estimated 700 Iraqis and 70 soldiers of the U.S.-led occupation force, most of them Americans, have been killed since April 1. A spike in kidnappings and disappearances continued Monday as two U.S. soldiers and six more employees of American contractor KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton Co. formerly known as Kellogg Brown & Root, were reported missing.

On Monday, KBR announced it was suspending some convoys delivering supplies to Iraq, raising the specter of supply shortages if the situation continues.

The retaking of the roads comes after some of the heaviest fighting in recent days. Attacks on American and allied troops have increased from 25 a day to as many as 70 on highways around the country. Guerrillas have taken at least 20 hostages and ambushed convoys supplying U.S. forces, including the looting of a truck Monday carrying armored personnel carriers.

Among those reported to have been kidnapped on Monday were at least eight -- and perhaps as many as 11 -- Russians who were working at power plants. Three Czech journalists also were reported missing.

The roads, with their scattered spirals of black smoke and bands of men brandishing rocket-propelled grenades, are a potent symbol of the U.S. forces’ inability to put down the insurgencies. Monday’s military actions on roads from Baghdad west to Fallouja and south to Najaf were intended to open up the country’s main arteries.

“Over the past 24 hours,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, “we have put a significant amount of combat power on both areas of operations to open up those lines of communication, so we can not only resupply our forces in Fallouja, Ramadi and our forces down south, but also make those roads safe for travel.”

U.S. forces also were focusing on the southern cities of Karbala and Najaf, where Sadr’s militias took over police stations and other government facilities. Coalition forces have gradually isolated the militias. But they had been wary of launching a broader campaign for fear of further antagonizing the country’s majority Shiite Muslim population during last weekend’s Arbain religious festival.

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With tens of thousands of pilgrims now leaving the region, American military officials indicated that U.S. troops would apply more pressure to the 30-year-old Sadr and his followers.

Sadr is controlling his militias -- with as many as 6,000 fighters -- from Najaf, Iraq’s holiest city. American military commanders said they would not hesitate to enter Najaf and Karbala in their efforts to capture Sadr, but they realized how sensitive such a move would be.

“My intent is to destroy Sadr’s militia, absolutely destroy it,” said Col. Dana Pittard, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division, which is leading the operation dubbed Operation Duke Fortitude. “And then to capture or kill Sadr. That is our mission. We’re just waiting to be unleashed.”

Acknowledging that invading Najaf could offend Muslims worldwide, he added: “It’s that sensitive. If we do this wrong, it will be felt from Morocco to Indonesia.”

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The turmoil to the north in Fallouja calmed a bit more Monday as negotiators backed by the Iraqi Governing Council sought a peaceful remedy to the fighting that began 13 days ago when four American contractors were ambushed and their bodies mutilated.

Overnight, though, the lull in fighting was broken by a firefight in the city’s northeast that left one Marine dead and eight injured, several seriously. A CNN cameraman was also hurt.

Most injuries were caused by a mortar fired by insurgents that landed in the courtyard of a house Marines from Camp Pendleton’s 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment had been occupying. “I saw the flash, smelled the smoke and heard guys screaming,” said Pfc. Zachary Colby, 19, of Central City, Iowa.

U.S. officials described the insurgents as a mix of Saddam Hussein loyalists and foreign Islamic fighters. Coalition authorities said the recent bloodshed would not deter the Bush administration from transferring power to an independent Iraqi government on June 30.

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The White House announced that President Bush would hold a news conference today to update Americans on the situation in Iraq. Bush met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Monday and discussed the surge of violence in Iraq. Afterward, Bush said conditions in Iraq were improving, while Mubarak expressed “serious concerns about the current state of affairs.”

In Baghdad, Dan Senor, the top spokesman for the U.S. civilian authority, underscored the intention to hand over power to the Iraqis on time.

“The way we look at it is, there’s no alternative to getting it done,” he said, charging that Al Qaeda operatives were attempting to spark a civil war in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites. “If we allow the violence to cause setbacks to the political process, the terrorists and the extremists will have scored an enormous victory.”

Negotiators said it appeared the truce in Fallouja would enter a third day. “It’s a cease-fire. It’s pretty quiet,” said Saif Rahman, an Iraqi Islamic Party official involved in the discussions.

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About 700 Iraqis are believed to have died in the Fallouja fighting, but Kimmitt said a full accounting of Fallouja’s casualties had not been determined. He said it would take an investigation by the nation’s Health Ministry to “get a fair, honest and credible figure.”

There was no word Monday on the fate of a number of hostages, including Thomas Hamill, a truck driver for KBR who was kidnapped during an ambush over the weekend. Hamill is a former dairy farmer who signed on for work in Baghdad to cover family medical bills.

The Japanese government was attempting to negotiate the release of three of its citizens kidnapped last week, and China’s state-controlled news agency reported that seven Chinese citizens had been released by their captors.

The U.S. identified the two missing U.S. soldiers as Sgt. Elmer C. Krause, 40, of Greensboro, N.C., and Pfc. Keith M. Maupin, 20, of Batavia, Ohio. They disappeared Friday after their convoy came under attack; both are assigned to the Army Reserve’s 724th Transportation Co., Bartonville, Ill.

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Near Najaf, hundreds of U.S. troops began moving into the region, including a Stryker Brigade from Mosul and battalions from Kirkuk and Baqubah.

Convoys carrying troops, tanks, construction equipment and supplies snaked south, setting up a huge encampment in an abandoned Iraqi army munitions dump in the desert about 12 miles outside of Najaf.

To escape attack or detection, the convoys often used back roads. Other convoys traveled the same route to Najaf that hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims used recently to reach the city for the Arbain holiday. After their arrival, U.S. troops began setting up for the long term, preparing to build housing facilities, infrastructure and a detention facility.

The move, coming as Sadr appeared to be entering serious discussions with at least two groups of Shiite negotiators, raised the stakes in the standoff.

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Members of the U.S.-led coalition are demanding that Sadr surrender to an Iraqi court for investigation into his involvement in the slaying of Majid Khoei, a Shiite clergyman who was stabbed to death last year in Najaf, allegedly at Sadr’s behest.

They are also demanding that he disband his militia, known as the Al Mahdi army, which gains its most formidable power from its ability to attract mobs of armed youths.

On Monday, Sadr for the first time took steps to withdraw some of his militia from government offices it took over last week, according to witnesses in Najaf.

The move was a good-faith gesture, said negotiators who were working with Shiite clergy and members of the Iraqi Governing Council. Installing his militia in key government offices in southern cities helped spark last week’s fighting in the south.

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However, it wasn’t clear whether Sadr intended to pull back. Large numbers of his militia members flocked to central Najaf armed with grenades and rockets. A witness said that one even set up a missile launcher.

The stationing of large numbers of U.S soldiers near the holy city could cause a backlash from Sadr supporters and more moderate Shiites, who view Western troops in the vicinity of their holy shrine as an affront. That could lead to violence not just in Najaf but also in Baghdad, which is home to 1 million to 2 million Shiites. Coupled with that is the possibility that young, poor, urban Shiites loyal to Sadr would throng to Najaf to defend him.

W. Andrew Terrill, an expert on Shiites at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., said putting Sadr under arrest would probably create some public protest but would be manageable. The challenge is capturing him, Terrill said.

“He’s surrounded by bodyguards, so there’s a potential for a real blood bath. And the destruction of Shia holy relics -- that’s not going to be well understood at the popular level,” he said.

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The situation was near a crisis point, said Khither Jaafar, a member of the Al Dawa Islamic Party’s political bureau who has been involved in the negotiations with Sadr’s staff.

“The situation is so dangerous because it doesn’t just involve Muqtada ... the Shias are feeling in general that this is a confrontation. If the U.S. moves militarily, it will be understood as a message against all the Shiites.”

And that could lead to a larger uprising: “We are very concerned that if this sedition breaks out, it will be hard to stop,” he said.

The group of Shiite negotiators said a proposal was on the table that they thought both Sadr and U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq L. Paul Bremer III would approve.

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It would provide for a delay on any action in the murder case against Sadr until after June 30. But it would also require that Sadr disband his militia, and there is a possibility Sadr’s organization would be represented in the interim government.

A second group of negotiators met with Sadr on Monday, according to sources close to the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Those negotiators, representatives of the four most senior Shiite clerics in Iraq, agreed to negotiate with Sadr when he requested people who were not tied to the U.S.-backed governing council, the sources said.

This second group is adamant that Americans avoid entering the holy shrine in Najaf and the surrounding areas of the city. U.S. officials appear to doubt whether either group could truly give guarantees that Sadr would make good on his commitments. Furthermore, they appear to have decided that unless they ratcheted up the pressure, he might try to play out the situation indefinitely.

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Times staff writers Nicholas Riccardi and Alissa J. Rubin in Baghdad, Tony Perry in Fallouja, and special correspondent Saad Fakr Deen in Najaf contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Iraq developments

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Fallouja One Marine killed in fighting overnight.

Hillah, Kut, Nasiriya Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s militia relinquishes government offices it had seized.

Najaf 2,500 American troops amassed outside Iraq’s holiest city waiting to end a standoff with Sadr’s militia.

Other events

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Reported kidnappings: Two U.S. troops and six KBR employees were seized Friday. At least eight and perhaps as many as 11 employees of a Russian energy service firm were abducted in Baghdad. Three Czech broadcast journalists were reported missing by their employers.

There was no word on the fate of three Japanese civilians, an American and hostages from several other countries.

Hostages freed: Seven Chinese civilians were freed, according to the state-controlled New China News Agency.

Death toll since April 1: About 70 American-led coalition troops and 700 Iraqis.

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Sources: Associated Press, BBC, Times reports


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