BAGHDAD, Iraq—The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East said Monday that he'd requested two more brigades of troops, perhaps as many as 14,000 soldiers, to help quell the worst outbreak of fighting in Iraq since the American-led occupation began more than a year ago.
Evidence mounted Monday that coalition forces were losing control of the roads in Iraq as another supply convoy was set ablaze and officials announced that nine more Americans were missing.
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said 70 coalition personnel and roughly 700 Iraqis had died since April 1, making the past 12 days the deadliest since Baghdad fell a year ago. The military reported Monday that three Marines near Fallujah and a soldier in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, were killed Sunday, even as a cease-fire in the embattled city generally held.
In an e-mail, a defense contractor who asked not to be named said the situation was getting worse, and that while the coalition controlled pockets within Iraq, the rebels "own the roads."
Gen. John Abizaid, the head of U.S. Central Command, which handles operations in the Middle East, refused to say in a teleconference Monday how many more troops would be needed in Iraq or how long they would stay. He said he was requesting "a strong, mobile combat-arms capability" of "two brigades' worth of combat power, if not more." A mechanized combat brigade generally numbers anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 troops.
It wasn't immediately clear whether the two additional brigades would come from fresh units in the United States or forces already in Iraq and Kuwait but scheduled to come home, senior defense officials said. Abizaid said he was working out the details of the request with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he refused to say which units were under consideration.
Seven American contract workers and two American soldiers were missing after their convoy came under attack Friday. Seven Chinese were released Monday after a day of captivity followed their entry into the country from Jordan. Three Japanese hostages captured Thursday weren't released, contrary to a Japanese news report Sunday, and their fate remained uncertain throughout the day.
The latest kidnappings raised to more than 40 the people taken in the past week, from 12 countries.
Contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root, a Halliburton subsidiary, confirmed that seven of its employees were missing, including Thomas Hamill, 42, who's known to be kidnapped. The company said it was continuing to send several hundred employees a week to Kuwait and Iraq.
Also on Monday, an Iraqi police car in Baqouba hit a homemade bomb. An internal coalition security memo noted that an Apache helicopter shot down Sunday was the seventh aircraft shot down or sustaining "effective small-arms fire in the last four days," including five in Baghdad. Eight convoy trucks have been destroyed since Sunday in the capital on the road to Baghdad International Airport.
Kimmitt noted that the situation in Iraq wasn't "business as usual."
"There are people out there taking hostages, kidnapping people," he said. "But we are restoring a tremendous amount of order."
He added that the number of coalition engagements with the enemy last week was two or three times above normal and the coalition was concerned over the enemy's ability to strike convoys.
Still, President Bush said in a news conference in Texas that the situation in Iraq was improving, "after a bad week."
The cease-fire in Fallujah, the site of much of the most intense fighting last week, seemed to hold for a third day. The Marines added another battalion of infantry Sunday, and Monday there were 2,000 Marines in and around the city, taking occasional drive-by fire.
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of American forces in Iraq, said in the teleconference that U.S. forces had retaken Kut and Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. He acknowledged that Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr's militia still controlled Najaf and parts of Karbala—both Shiite spiritual centers—though he said coalition forces had cordoned off both cities in preparation for moving against Sadr, who is believed to be in Najaf.
"The mission of the U.S. forces is to kill or capture Muqtada al Sadr. That's our mission," he said.
Some police in Najaf and Karbala returned to work Monday, after Sadr apparently ordered his followers to withdraw from government buildings in those cities.
Abizaid acknowledged that some American-trained Iraqi security forces had defected during the weeklong uprising and others had refused to fight.
"These numbers are not large but they are troubling to us, and clearly we've got to work on the Iraqi security forces," he said.
With less than three months to go before the scheduled June 30 transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government, the poor showing of Iraqi forces calls into question how well they will be prepared to handle security after the hand-over and how long a large U.S. presence in Iraq will be needed.
Coalition Provisional Authority Spokesman Dan Senor praised the work of the Iraqi Governing Council in recent days, specifically for asserting itself and negotiating for a cease-fire in Fallujah. He said its actions were even more important in this difficult period.
Senor said militia groups such as Sadr's Mahdi Army were using "mob violence" before the June 30 return of sovereignty date to try to shape Iraq's political future.
"It is critical that we confront them now rather than after June 30th," he said. "It is critical that we cleanse the body politic of the poison that remains here after 35 years of Saddam Hussein's totalitarian rule."
(Schofield reported from Baghdad, Brown from Washington. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Patrick Peterson in Camp Fallujah, Iraq, and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040412 USIRAQ deaths, 20040412 USIRAQ update