BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. Marines took advantage of an extended cease-fire Sunday to fortify their positions in the disputed town of Fallujah as U.S. officials waited for Iraqi Governing Council members to negotiate an end to the standoff there.
Combat was limited around the disputed town, though only in comparison to the fierce fighting of the previous week, which claimed the lives of more than a dozen U.S. Marines and perhaps as many as 600 Iraqis.
Cobra helicopters fired rockets at two buildings after they were fired on, according to a Marine spokesman at Camp Fallujah, six miles from the embattled town. Marines also claimed to have killed an unspecified number of Iraqi insurgents and to have captured 24 others.
Fighting also flared elsewhere across Iraq, including the capital, where an Apache helicopter was shot down, killing both crewmen. Mortars rained onto the grounds of Baghdad International Airport, trapping the few travelers getting into the country in the terminal for a short while.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the coalition's principal military spokesman, used words such as "sporadic" and "potshots" to describe the fighting at his daily news conference.
Kimmitt said the cities of Nasiriyah, Al Kut and Baghdad's Sadr City were under Iraqi civilian control—phrasing that meant that while they were no longer under the control of insurgents, they also were not under the control of coalition military forces.
He also suggested for the first time that U.S. commanders may be willing to reach a negotiated settlement with Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, whose Mahdi Army still controls the cities of Najaf, Karbala and Kufa. Iraqi Governing Council members reportedly also are negotiating a cease-fire with Sadr's supporters.
"We don't see it as a necessary requirement that any military action has to occur in Najaf," Kimmitt said. "There are many ways for the town of Najaf to come back under legitimate control ... that don't involve any fighting at all," Kimmitt said.
Central Command, the U.S. military organization that controls all U.S. forces in the Middle East, said 16 coalition soldiers had died in fighting since Friday, but that only two of those came Sunday.
At Fort Hood, Texas, President Bush met with 11 soldiers injured in Iraq, emerging from the 35-minute session looking grim. He said U.S. forces had a "tough week" in Iraq and that he was praying for their safety.
In Japan, the Kyodo news service reported that three Japanese civilians taken hostage by Islamic extremists in Iraq had been released unharmed.
The slowdown in fighting was a welcome respite at Fallujah, which has been the scene of intense fighting, with Marines turning to heavy weapons and air support, including AC-130 attack aircraft and 500-pound laser guided bombs, in a so-far unsuccessful effort to dislodge an unknown number of insurgent fighters.
Marines took advantage of the stand-down to reinforce their positions, a Marine statement said, and added to "the cordon encircling the city."
"Marines fought and died for those positions," Kimmitt said, noting that should fighting resume, they would be used to launch a new offensive.
A Marine spokesman at Camp Fallujah said the flow of people from Fallujah had slowed significantly, and that some people were returning.
"People are leaving, and they're going back," Major T.V. Johnson said, basing the observation on traffic being screened at checkpoints around the town.
There was no official tally of the number of people who had left. Fallujah's population is variously described as ranging from 110,000 to 300,000. Some reports said 60,000 people had left, but there was no way to verify that number. Other reports have placed the number in the low thousands.
Johnson noted that those who had left apparently had taken refuge with friends and family and that the military had for now rejected plans to build refugee camps nearby.
At least some made it to Baghdad. A bomb shelter in western Baghdad, built during one of Iraq's previous wars, has become home for 88 refugees from Fallujah. Most of the residents were women, and some said their husbands had remained behind in Fallujah to fight Americans.
"We are refugees in our own country, thanks to George Bush," said Shokreya Mahmood, 48.
The relative peace Sunday also gave Marines at Ramadi, near Fallujah, a chance to remember 16 comrades who had been killed in fighting since Tuesday. Most of the dead came from Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, Fourth Regiment—the hardest hit unit so far since U.S. troops entered Iraq more than a year ago.
The service took place in a temporary hangar at the Marine base there. On one side of the room, a single M-16 stood, bayonet down, topped with a helmet draped with 16 dog tags. One by one, 400 Marines went up to the memorial, some kneeling.
Afterward, the Marines went back their normal duties.
"It is difficult to fully understand and almost impossible to experience the loss we have experienced in these days," battalion chaplain Lt. Brian Weigelt told the service.
Coalition spokesmen declined to discuss the substance of the on-going negotiations at Fallujah.
Coalition Provisional Authority spokesman Dan Senor said the current goal was simply to give members of the Iraqi Governing Council time to reach a political solution with fighters in Fallujah.
"Once we get comfortable with that phase we can talk about the nature of those discussions that could lead to perhaps something more permanent," he said. "We're trying to get the fighting to stop, to minimize the bloodshed and then we will go from there."
Previously, coalition officials have said they are insistent that leaders in Fallujah surrender those responsible for the killing of four American security contractors who were ambushed March 31 and whose bodies were mutilated by a mob afterward.
But the likelihood of talks resulting in that was uncertain. Arabic news reports said there was a huge gap between the two sides.
In response to the U.S. demands, one radio report said, insurgents have asked that they be given custody of the officer who ordered the attack on the city, the pilots responsible for bombing the city and for the Marines to pull back a couple miles. There was no way to verify the report.
The bloodshed at Fallujah has created a public relations nightmare for the coalition, angering Iraqis and prompting three members of the U.S.-appointed government council to threaten to resign.
According to hospitals, as many as 600 Iraqis have died in the fighting, half of whom reportedly were women and children. An additional 1,000 to 1,700 have been reported wounded.
Many wounded died because the fighting prevented them from reaching medical care, and doctors have said that the fighting also prevented them from reaching the wounded.
One member of Fallujah's tribal association, Sheikh Munachil Abbas al Irsam, said Sunday he had come to Baghdad to help in the negotiations.
"We have a lot to do," he said as he walked into the meeting. "A horrible thing has happened in my city."
Coalition spokesmen Sunday were unwilling, however, to admit to widespread civilian casualties and said U.S. forces had acted in self-defense. Kimmitt noted that the bombing of a wall surrounding a mosque last week, killing a reported 45 people, was necessary because insurgents were using the mosque to attack coalition forces.
He blamed Arabic language newscasts for distorting events.
"My solution is change the channel," Kimmitt said in response to a question from an Iraqi journalist. "Change the channel to a legitimate, authoritative, honest news station. The stations that are showing Americans intentionally killing women and children, are not legitimate news sources, that is propaganda and that is lies, so you want a solution, change the channel."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Patrick Peterson of The Biloxi, Miss., Sun Herald at Camp Fallujah and David Swanson of The Philadelphia Inquirer in Ramadi contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ