The United States last night robustly defended its controversial siege of Falluja which has cost the lives of more than 600 people over the past week, by claiming most of those who died were militants picked off with precision by US marines.
As a tense ceasefire held in the turbulent city west of Baghdad and an international hostage crisis persisted across Iraq, the US marine commander in charge of the siege of Falluja claimed 95% of those killed were legitimate targets.
The death toll in Falluja has sparked widespread international concern and has led to condemnation by the US-appointed Iraqi governing council.
Yesterday, the director of the town's general hospital, Rafie al-Issawi, said the vast majority of the dead were women, children and the elderly.
But when asked about the victims numbers, US marine Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne said: "What I think you will find is 95% of those were military age males that were killed in the fighting. The marines are trained to be precise in their firepower ... The fact that there are 600 goes back to the fact that the marines are very good at what they do," he said.
The figure of 600 was gathered from four clinics around the city and from Falluja general hospital, which have all been taking in bodies, said al-Issawi. Bodies were also being buried in two football fields. "We have reports of an unknown number of dead being buried in people's homes without coming to the clinics," Mr Issawi said.
Asked about the number of Iraqi casualties in Falluja, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, spokesman for the US military in Iraq, repeated that marines were "tremendously precise" in their operations and suggested any civilian deaths were caused by insurgents hiding among them.
At least 50 US soldiers have also been killed over the past week, with another 10 over the Easter weekend. Nearly a third of Falluja's 200,000 population fled the city during the weekend lull in fighting.
A British civilian, Gary Teeley, who was kidnapped in the southern city of Nassiriya, was released yesterday, and there were reports last night that eight other foreign hostages including three Pakistanis and two Turks had been freed.
Several other foreigners, including one US contractor and three Japanese civilians, were still being held by their captors.
The bodies of two dead westerners dressed in civilian clothes were shown on Arabic television. Reports from Bonn suggested they were German private security guards.
US officials persevered with ceasefire talks with Sunni militants despite the shooting down of a US Apache helicopter over the western Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib, killing its two-man crew.
The US civilian administrator, Paul Bremer, appealed for insurgents in Falluja to hold their fire long enough for members of the Iraqi governing council to enter the Sunni stronghold for negotiations. But he insisted: "We will not negotiate over hostages."
The ceasefire calls also appeared to be aimed at freeing US troops and resources for a parallel running battle with radical Shia militias, after it became evident that US-led coalition troops were being overwhelmed by the two-front conflict. It emerged yesterday that an entire Iraqi battalion had refused to fight with US troops and had returned to barracks, torpedoing any prospects of the US pulling out any of its 135,000 troops and passing on their duties to an Iraqi force.
Mr Bremer confirmed that the 620-strong battalion of newly trained Iraqi soldiers had refused to fight after members of the unit were attacked while passing through a Shia district of Baghdad.
According to Major General Paul Eaton, who is overseeing their training, the Iraqi soldiers had told him: "We did not sign up to fight Iraqis."
The report quoted an unnamed senior US officer as saying as many as a quarter of the new Iraqi security forces had "quit, changed sides, or otherwise failed to perform their duties".
Mr Bremer played down the significance of the issue yesterday. "I don't think it's a significant portion at all," he told ABC television.
The surge in fighting has led to calls for an increase in the numbers of US troops in Iraq. "It's obvious that we're paying a heavy price, I think, for not having had enough troops there from the beginning," said John McCain, a Republican senator.
President George Bush insisted that political sovereignty would be handed over by a June 30 deadline.
"Obviously I pray every day there's less casualty. But I know what we're doing in Iraq is right," the president said, after spending Easter Day with troops in Texas. Tony Blair made a similar pledge of resolve yesterday.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004