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Fighting between Marines, insurgents convulses Fallujah

FALLUJAH, Iraq—Intense fighting erupted late Tuesday between U.S. Marines and insurgents in the besieged city of Fallujah, as cannon rounds from AC-130H Spectre gunships and tank fire blasted several positions in the northern part of the city of 250,000 people west of Baghdad.

The battle followed a decision earlier in the day by military commanders to postpone patrols in Fallujah as the deadline for insurgents there to turn in their weapons had passed with almost no cooperation.

It was evident Tuesday that the American military had yet to find any solution to the standoffs with insurgents in Fallujah and the southern city of Najaf short of a full-scale military assault, which could cause huge civilian casualties and turn even more of the population against the U.S.-led effort.

One Marine reportedly was killed in Fallujah, where chants and songs from a mosque could be heard amid the explosions. Another American soldier was killed Tuesday during a patrol in Baghdad.

"Anti-Iraq forces attacked Marines in defensive positions in Fallujah shortly after 10 p.m. tonight, again violating the current cease-fire," a 1st Marine Division statement said. "Marines responded by directing precision weaponry against the enemy forces in order to defend themselves."

The fighting erupted about two hours after a mortar struck Camp Fallujah, the headquarters of Marine commanders who are directing all U.S. forces arrayed across Anbar province.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, at a briefing in Baghdad before the fighting began, said military commanders on the ground were seeing "intangible benefits" from their negotiations with local leaders who are trying to convince the insurgents to end their violent resistance. It was unclear what those benefits might be, since the negotiations don't appear to have influenced the insurgents.

"That's not to commend the insurgents inside Fallujah," Kimmitt said, "because they continue to fail to produce the weapons, fail to produce the fighters, fail to produce those who have been responsible for the heinous acts inside Fallujah."

For more than two weeks, the Marines have observed a unilateral cease-fire—they fire only in self-defense—since they launched an offensive in Fallujah after the ambush deaths March 31 of four American security contractors, whose bodies were mutilated.

Coalition officials also reported that U.S. military forces killed 57 militiamen Monday night who were defending an anti-aircraft gun east of the town of Kufa. Kufa is adjacent to the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf, where cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has taken control with his so-called Mahdi Army. There was no way to confirm the number or the identity of those killed.

American officials have mixed tough talk with political caution in dealing with both cities. A major coalition offensive against either city could anger Iraqis, already weary and disillusioned by the postwar occupation.

Trying to address the festering anti-occupation mood, coalition spokesman Dan Senor announced that a program would be created to compensate the victims of Saddam Hussein's brutal reign.

Among those victims were 20,000 teachers who lost their jobs under the old regime, Senor said. The Ministry of Education already has rehired about 9,800 and Senor said the coalition would work with the ministry to help the others.

Senor said details of the program had yet to be worked out, but that it would include a "substantial" contribution of money from the coalition.

The announcement came days after coalition Administrator L. Paul Bremer eased job restrictions on former members of the old ruling Baath Party, which Saddam controlled.

As the coalition sought to boost the population's morale by doling out jobs and other compensation, it was on the defensive over its actions in Fallujah.

Kimmitt said Marines had been pinned down Monday by fire from the minaret of a mosque. As a result, they called in "precision strikes" and a tank destroyed the minaret.

"We very reluctantly go after holy sites," Kimmitt said. "But when those holy sites are used to store weapons, to fire weapons, we must take action."

Peppered with angry questions from Iraqi reporters, Kimmitt said the Marines chose to save their fellow Marines rather than preserve the minaret. "That's the right choice," he said.

Coalition officials warned over the weekend that the use of mosques, shrines and schools to attack was intolerable.

On Sunday, Kimmitt forcefully declared that joint patrols with Marines and Iraqi security forces would begin Tuesday. Since then, coalition commanders "made the judgment that those forces weren't ready," he said.

Iraqi security forces have proved reluctant to engage anti-U.S. insurgents. It also was unclear how American or Iraqi forces would be able to patrol the streets of a city where heavily armed insurgents are entrenched. Kimmitt said commanders would assess the situation day by day.

Tuesday was the deadline for insurgents to turn in heavy weapons. In recent days, military officials have characterized the few arms delivered as junk.

"I'm not certain any weapons were turned in today," Kimmitt said.

In other news, representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross visited Saddam on Tuesday. Coalition officials declined to described the visit, which came a day before his first birthday in captivity. He'll turn 67.

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(Moran, of The Philadelphia Inquirer, reported from Baghdad, Iraq. Rosenberg, of The Miami Herald, reported from Camp Fallujah, near the city of Fallujah.)

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

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040427 USIRAQ Fallujah, 20040427 USIRAQ Fallujah

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