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Fierce fighting continues in Fallujah

BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. Marines and Iraqi insurgents fought pitched battles Thursday for control of Fallujah, and Spanish troops reportedly battled a Muslim militia group in Najaf as the anti-coalition uprising stretched into its fifth day.

There were signs that uprising had slowed. For the first time since Sunday, no new cities reported combat. But Iraqi insurgents remained in control of three southern towns, and the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said he expected resistance to continue "for some time."

The death toll for coalition soldiers since the uprising began Sunday neared 50, making the week one of the bloodiest since U.S. forces entered Iraq 13 months ago. A Marine spokesman said four Marines had been killed in Fallujah Thursday and another had been killed in Ramadi. Hundreds of Iraqis have died.

"We're inside Fallujah, not everywhere, but inside," Maj. T.V. Johnson told a Knight Ridder reporter at Camp Fallujah, a Marine encampment about five miles from the city. "We're digging in, hoping to entice the enemy to attack our positions, and hoping that the citizens will start pointing out the bad guys to us."

Other reports said Iraqi gunmen had retaken a mosque that Marines had captured Wednesday, after calling in air support, and that the Marines had returned to the mosque Thursday and routed them after morning-long fighting.

The fighting continued into the early hours Friday. Intense artillery fire could be heard in the city from Camp Fallujah, and helicopters were a constant presence in the sky.

In Najaf, one of two cities now under control of Mahdi Army militiamen loyal to Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Arabic television reporters said that seven Spanish soldiers had been killed and that black-clad fighters were digging in positions in the center of the city, which is home to one of Iraq's most holy Shiite shrines.

Meanwhile, in Washington, two U.S. officials said that John D. Negroponte, the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is expected to be the first American ambassador to post-Saddam Iraq.

One of the officials said Negroponte, a favorite of Secretary of State Colin Powell, has been asked whether he would take the job. But no imminent announcement is expected from the White House, because Bush and his aides do not want to turn the U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer into a lame duck.

Negroponte, if nominated and confirmed, would oversee what is expected to be one of the largest U.S. embassies in the world. He has held numerous top posts before, including ambassador to Honduras during the Reagan administration's covert war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Elsewhere in Iraq, an eerie calm prevailed, though security remained a concern.

At least 13 foreign workers were kidnapped by Islamic extremists, including three Japanese whose captors threatened to burn them alive unless Japan agreed to withdraw its contingent of soldiers from Iraq.

Baghdad residents expressed increasing worry and remained inside. Streets were empty, and stores across the capital were shuttered.

Inside the Green Zone, the cordoned-off neighborhood where the Coalition Provisional Authority maintains its headquarters, explosives experts detonated a bomb discovered in a parking lot next door to the convention center where U.S. officials hold their briefings.

As night deepened, a series of explosions rocked the Green Zone.

Sadr City, a poor suburb of 3 million, mostly Shiites, was quiet for the first time since the weekend. Overnight, American forces tried to destroy al-Sadr's office there, but his followers rebuilt it Thursday morning.

In Kuwait, the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, on its way home to Fort Riley, Kan., was ordered to prepare a troop strength report amid rumors that the soldiers might be returned to Iraq. A Fort Riley spokeswoman said Thursday that the return of the 700 to 800 troops was still planned for this weekend.

"My assessment is that we will continue to see this violence for some time, until Muqtada al-Sadr turns himself in or his militia is destroyed," U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez said.

Coalition authorities also were fighting a public relations battle, as anger grew over civilian casualties and claims that the United States was blocking humanitarian assistance to townspeople trapped by the fighting in Fallujah.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Baghdad residents conducted food and blood drives for the wounded in Fallujah. Traditionally distrustful of each other, Sunni and Shiite Muslims coordinated efforts, loading trucks with tons of rice, sugar, medical supplies and blood that had been piled in the parking lots of mosques throughout the city.

At Sanchez's news conference, Iraqi journalists repeatedly asked him to address whether the American bombing of a mosque in Fallujah Wednesday was a war crime, with deaths approaching 300. They also asked about reports of another 300 deaths in Ramadi. Sanchez denied that war crimes had been committed.

"We are not stopping legitimate humanitarian aid," he said.

But Baghdad radio news was filled with reports that Marines had fired on humanitarian convoys trying to pass through the American seal around the city.

At the Um al Quraa mosque, where the white sacks of food and supplies were piled 10 feet high in the early morning, Nasar Abdul Kareemm 42, said he had been fired upon while approaching with a convoy. He said a friend was shot in the leg.

"If the Americans will not let us bring food and medicines to the people, I can guarantee they will lose this war," he said.

Some trucks did get through. Amer Sadek, 29, was driving one.

"I went down in a convoy of five trucks, but only two were let into the city," he said. "What I saw was beyond description. Entire neighborhoods have been reduced to battlefields. The people crowded the truck, crying and begging us to take them away from all the death, all the blood. But the Marines told us, `Two go in, two come out.' So we had to leave them behind."

While the reports of convoys being shot upon on the road to Fallujah couldn't be confirmed, there was fighting along that road. In the early afternoon, a U.S. Army convoy on the western outskirts of town was ambushed by insurgents using rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machine guns. There were no casualty reports available, but the gunfire and explosions created noisy confusion along a rural stretch of road.

At one point, an American journalist and translator near the fighting stumbled into the hiding place of insurgent fighters, one of whom shouted, "They are spies, kill them." The journalist and translator sped away, uninjured.

New details also emerged of fighting from other regions of Iraq.

A private security contractor said in an e-mail that Ukrainian forces abandoned Al Kut on Wednesday after 25 to 30 members of Mahdi Army began attacking their compound with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades from nearby rooftops.

The security contractor, whose e-mail was shared on the promise that neither he nor its recipient be identified, said one company of Ukrainian soldiers and private security contractors from a U.S. company, Triple Canopy, were inside the walled CPA compound at the time of the attack.

Other Ukrainian soldiers were at a nearby airfield.

When the compound began taking fire, the contractor wrote, the Ukrainian commander at the airfield refused to send reinforcements and ordered the troops at the compound to flee.

Another group of private security contractors who were protecting workers nearby was surrounded, however. They fought their way to a rooftop and called for U.S. help to be evacuated, the contractor wrote. But the Ukrainian commander refused to allow a Special Forces unit to assist, and one of the security contractors was killed.

The three remaining contractors "acquired a car," the contractor reported, and escaped, but left the dead contractor behind.

"The black flag is now flying over the Coalition Provisional Authority compound," he wrote.

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(Contributing to this report were Patrick Peterson of the Biloxi, Miss., Sun Herald, at Camp Falujah; David Swanson of the Philadelphia Inquirer in Ramadi, Carol Rosenberg in Baghdad and Lee Hill Kavanaugh of The Kansas City Star in Kuwait.)

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

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