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Fierce firefight in Fallujah kills 1 U.S. Marine, 8 Iraqi militants

FALLUJAH, Iraq—A fragile cease-fire broke down Monday after gun battles erupted between U.S. Marines and Sunni Muslim insurgents holed up in a mosque, killing one American and eight Iraqi militants. Nine Marines were wounded in the firefight, the fiercest in two weeks.

In Baghdad, two U.S. soldiers were killed and five wounded when an explosion leveled part of a single-story building they were in while searching for suspected "chemical munitions."

To the south, U.S troops were sent to replace Spanish forces, which are withdrawing from the holy city of Najaf, in a bid to force radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr to surrender and disband his renegade militia.

Coalition leaders vowed that the latest attacks wouldn't deter them from returning limited sovereignty to Iraqi control by June 30. They said that most Iraqis supported the United States.

"I have no doubt that television coverage picks up many images of people cheering on attacks on coalition forces," said Dan Senor, the chief civilian spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition. But "if you look at polling, the silent majority of Iraqis express grateful appreciation.

"They recognize their enemy is our enemy."

In Fallujah on Monday, dozens of Arab gunmen fired mortars, AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at Marine units that, under the cover of darkness, took control of two buildings in a poor northern neighborhood inside the city of 250,000. Only a quarter of Fallujah is controlled by Americans dug in on the outskirts.

With casualties mounting, U.S. commanders sent in tanks and Cobra attack helicopters firing laser-guided missiles. Tank fire destroyed the mosque's 50-foot-tall minaret from which the insurgents were attacking. The tall tower normally is used to call Sunni Muslims to prayer five times a day.

"Marines played instructions in Arabic over loudspeakers that told anyone in the mosque to come out with their hands raised over their heads. No one exited," said a Marine communique. The Marines then charged inside. They found expended ammunition casings on the minaret's floor but no rebels.

When they withdrew, they were fired on again. So, "Marines responded with tank fire against the minaret, silencing the attackers," the communique said.

At 1st Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters, commanders said late Monday that the latest bloodshed wouldn't derail plans for side-by-side Iraqi-American foot patrols to ease Marine entry into the volatile city. The patrols are part of an agreement reached with Iraqi civic leaders from Baghdad and Fallujah who don't represent the rebels.

"There's fighting in Fallujah every day. This one happened to be captured on CNN," said Maj. T.V. Johnson, referring to the cable news channel. He said the foot patrols, to start later this week, are "fundamental to getting in there, learning about the people and them learning about us."

Absent a White House order to attack, the Marines have redoubled efforts to enlist Iraqi police and civil defense partners to help them hunt down an estimated 2,000 guerrillas who have ruled the city's core for months. But some U.S. civilians and military officials remain unsure of their Iraqi allies' loyalty and motivation.

In Baghdad, the Monday morning explosion in the northern industrial district of Waziriya leveled the front half of the building. Some news reports said members of the Iraq Survey Group who were hunting for weapons of mass destruction were in the building at the time, although military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt would only identify the casualties as "coalition members," pending notification of the next of kin.

Four Humvees were destroyed in the blast, and dozens of cheering teenagers subsequently smashed the vehicles and stripped them of their equipment.

Kimmitt declined to elaborate on what sort of chemical munitions were allegedly being produced in the building. "Chemical munitions could mean any number of things," including smoke grenades, he said. The building's owner is suspected of supplying chemical agents to insurgents, he added, but reporters saw no indication that troops were donning special protective gear in the aftermath of the blast.

What caused the explosion is still unclear, but Kimmitt dismissed some residents' claims that the building housed a cosmetics factory that used chemicals such as ethanol and acetone.

Farther south, U.S. forces were poised to take over the former Spanish base in the holy Shiite Muslim city of Najaf, a move that could heighten Shiite anger against the coalition. The Americans have vowed to arrest or kill al Sadr and disband his Mahdi Army , which has clashed with coalition forces and seized control of several southern Iraqi city centers.

Najaf is home to the holiest Shiite shrine, which the American-led forces have steered clear of even during last year's war to topple Saddam Hussein.

U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer warned Monday that the coalition wouldn't tolerate the stockpiling of weapons in mosques in the holy city, reports of which have surfaced in recent days. "The restoration of these holy places to calm places must begin immediately," Bremer said in a statement.

Commanders of al Sadr's militia have insisted that on the orders of their leader, there are no weapons in that shrine or a similarly significant mosque in neighboring Kufa. No armed al Sadr loyalists are visible inside the holy compounds, although gunmen armed with Kalashnikovs and the occasional rocket-propelled grenade patrol the rooftop of the Kufa Mosque and perimeter of Najaf's Grand Imam Ali Shrine.

Also on Monday, a Jordanian militant linked to al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the suicide boat attacks two days earlier that killed three Americans and shut down Iraq's key oil terminal near Basra for 24 hours.

The claim by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, accused by U.S. authorities of being the leading al-Qaida contributor to the Iraqi insurgency, appeared on a Web site that often carries statements linked to the terrorist group.

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(Rosenberg reported from Fallujah; Nelson reported from Baghdad.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040426 USIRAQ Fallujah

Iraq

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