Chaos spread in Iraq on the first anniversary of Saddam Hussein's ouster as US forces resumed their offensive in the besieged town of Fallujah after a brief suspension while insurgents seized foreign hostages as bargaining chips.
Faced with mounting popular anger over heavy civilian casualties in Fallujah west of Baghdad, US civil administrator Paul Bremer announced Friday a unilateral suspension of the six-day-old offensive against Sunni Muslim rebels to allow for the delivery of food and medical supplies to residents.
Bremer said the suspension was meant to "allow for a meeting between members of the (coalition-installed interim) Governing Council, local Muslim leadership and the leadership of anti-coalition forces."
Iraqi insurgents wave their national flag as they celebrate in front of a burning US military tanker after attacking it with rocket-propelled grenades (RPG). Armed insurgents seized control of the highway linking the predominantly Sunni Muslim town of Abu Gharib with their besieged bastion of Fallujah west of Baghdad. (AFP/Antonio Scorza)
But the initiative was short-lived.
"The suspension of offensive operations lasted for 90 minutes but it is over," said Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne, a battalion commander, adding that planned mediation talks with local tribal sheikhs had never happened.
Moments earlier, the coalition's deputy director of military operations, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, had denied that there was any formal ceasefire agreement with the rebels.
Yet the Iraqi Islamic Party said in a statement obtained by AFP that an agreement had been reached with the coalition for a 24-hour ceasefire in Fallujah from midday.
Fallujah residents had earlier started to flee the besieged city, an AFP correspondent witnessed.
Men, women and children were fleeing on foot through backstreets and paths that cut through fields, and were being allowed to pass by US marines.
Fallujah mayor Saad Abdullah al-Rawi called on the world to "pressure the Americans to stop the massacres in the city and allow residents to bury their dead and treat the many wounded."
More than 300 Iraqis have been killed and 500 wounded in the Fallujah fighting over the past few days, the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel television said, quoting hospital sources.
An AFP photographer witnessed fierce clashes between US troops and insurgents in the predominantly Sunni Muslim town of Abu Gharib, west of the capital.
The rebels controlled the highway between Abu Gharib and the entrance of Fallujah and hundreds of insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov assault rifles were hiding along the road.
Elsewhere in the country, coalition forces battled the banned militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, who is wanted by Iraqi justice for the murder of a rival, pro-American cleric last year.
Exactly a year after US forces were greeted as liberators when they toppled Saddam's statue in a central Baghdad square, Sadr loyalists were holding strong positions in some towns of central and south Iraq as well as in Baghdad's main Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City.
But US troops regained control of the central Iraqi city of Kut after meeting fierce resistance from Sadr supporters, a US military spokeswoman said.
Sadr's Mehdi Army militiamen had seized the town from Ukrainian coalition troops Wednesday. There was no immediate word on casualties.
In Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City, US forces evacuated police stations and the town hall after five days of clashes with radical militiamen, an AFP correspondent witnessed.
US troops had abandoned the district's police headquarters as well as the Al-Karama, al-Sadr, al-Rafidain, al-Nasr, al-Thawra and al-Tahdid stations.
No US troops were visible at the town hall on the district's main thoroughfare, where clashes have raged since Sunday between US troops and Sadr loyalists. Iraqi police were seen standing in front of the building.
The reason for the US pullback was not immediately known.
In the central Shiite city of Karbala, three Sadr militants and an Iranian woman were killed during overnight clashes with coalition troops in this central city, officials said.
The four-hour clashes took place near the Al-Abbas shrine in the centre of the holy city, Saleh al-Hasnawi, the health ministry representative in Karbala, told AFP.
Coalition authorities also warned Shiite pilgrims gathering in central Iraq, particularly in Najaf, for ceremonies marking the 40th day after the anniversary marking the death of imam Hussein Sunday to show great vigilance and caution.
Meanwhile the abduction of foreigners caused more headaches for coalition forces as they moved to crush Shiite and Sunni insurgents to clear the way for the return of Iraqi sovereignty by a June 30 deadline.
Three Japanese, including an 18-year-old, and a Canadian humanitarian worker were being held Friday, while a Briton was feared kidnapped after being reported missing for several days from the southern city of Nasiriyah.
Eight South Korean clergymen were free after being abducted Thursday.
A previously unknown group calling itself the "Mujahedeen Brigades" showed the Japanese hostages in a videotape aired by the Al-Jazeera satellite channel and threatened to kill the three, who included a woman, unless Tokyo withdrew its troops.
The families of the three Japanese tearfully begged the Tokyo government to pull its troops out of the country Friday as Tokyo reiterated there would be no withdrawal.
In the southern Iraqi town of Amara, Iraqi police said Shiite Muslim militiamen killed a British soldier after shooting down a drone. A British spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
In Madrid, the defense ministry said three Spanish soldiers had been wounded, one seriously, in an ambush in the southern town of Diwaniyah overnight.
And in Baghdad, Bremer named Governing Council member Samir Sumaydah as the new interim interior minister, replacing Nuri Badran who resigned Thursday after the US overseer expressed dissatisfaction with the performance of his ministry, particularly the police.
© Copyright 2004 AFP