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More Americans die in combat; Iraqi officials attempt cease-fires

BAGHDAD, Iraq—At least three Americans and scores of Iraqis died in combat Saturday as Iraqi Government Council members worked feverishly to arrange cease-fires in both the Sunni-dominated center of the country and the Shiite-dominated south.

With hundreds of civilian dead at Fallujah inflaming Iraqi public opinion, the U.S.-led coalition and the insurgents agreed to a 12-hour ceasefire so wounded civilians could be treated and others could leave the city.

Another ceasefire was announced in the south, where Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr pledged that his Mahdi Army militia would not launch attacks this weekend in honor of a religious festival at Karbala that has attracted more than one million pilgrims. Sadr's forces currently control Karbala and Najaf.

Still, combat raged in both areas throughout the day amid signs that much of the country was outside the control of coalition forces. More combat seemed certain as U.S. troops were ordered toward Najaf and Karbala.

The day's dead included one Marine killed at Fallujah and another at the nearby town of Ramadi. U.S. officials also said an airman died in a mortar attack at Balad, north of Baghdad.

At least one American civilian was apparently captured by unidentified gunmen and shown on a videotape. The man identified himself as Thomas Hamill, 43, and said he was from Mississippi.

Two U.S. servicemen and two Germans were also missing, and an official of the Red Crescent, the Islamic version of the Red Cross, and his wife were shot to death while driving to Mosul.

Insurgents also attacked government buildings and police stations in Baquba, north of Baghdad, and fought with U.S. troops in Baghdad's northern, mainly Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah.

The roads around Baghdad continued to be dangerous. Unidentified gunmen claimed to have taken as many as 20 foreigners captive along the road to Fallujah and coalition vehicles came under attack throughout the day.

For the second straight day insurgents attacked a U.S. Army tank on the road to Baghdad International Airport and set it ablaze.

There was some good news. Arabic television reported that a group that earlier had threatened to kill three Japanese hostages if their country did not withdraw its troops by Sunday had bowed to pressure from Islamic religious leaders and agreed to release them.

U.S. forces also declared themselves in control of the city of Al Kut south of Baghdad early Sunday morning, saying that they had routed most of a 500-man Mahdi Army contingent after three days of combat. Col. Rob Baker, of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, said there were still perhaps 100 militiamen left in the city, but that they no longer were a military threat and that the brigade had been ordered to move toward Najaf and Karbala.

Marine officers at Camp Fallujah, the Marine base several miles outside the city, reported that some women and children had fled Fallujah during the cease-fire, but that the numbers were fewer than they had expected. A naval construction brigade, originally scheduled to undertake public works projects, scouted the area for places to build a refugee camp, but it was not certain that a camp would be needed.

Marines also reported heavy fighting in spite of the cease-fire.

One Marine unit was attacked by what was described as "a large unit" of insurgents firing rocket-propelled grenades and small arms and reported capturing 22 enemy fighters. There was no word on dead or wounded.

Another group of Marines killed five insurgents after being fired upon, according to a Marine spokesman at Camp Fallujah.

Combat was also fierce to the west at Ramadi, where one company of Marines was pinned down for more than three hours in a fierce firefight that claimed a Marine's life—the 15th member of the company to die in combat since Tuesday.

The attack came at 7 a.m. local time as Echo Company of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Regiment, was going door-to-door searching for weapons and insurgents. Attackers fired machine guns and rocket propelled grenades from all sides as Marines scrambled for cover.

Two helicopters were called in to rake enemy positions with machine-gun fire.

Capt. Kelly Royer, the company's commander, estimated enemy dead at 40.

News of cease-fire agreements in both Fallujah and the south came at the end of one of the bloodiest weeks since U.S. troops entered Iraq 13 months ago and were considered remarkable for reasons beyond the cessation of hostilities.

For one, it marked the first direct involvement in the conflict of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which is frequently mocked here as a group of powerless puppets.

And it also seemed to be a departure from the coalition position throughout the week that the insurgents would be "captured or killed."

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the coalition military spokesman in Baghdad, dropped references to the insurgents as terrorists and criminals—"We do not negotiate with terrorists"—and described them as likely remnants of Saddam Hussein's military.

"We believe what we are seeing in Fallujah are former military, perhaps former Saddam fedayeen, perhaps former Republican Guard," he said. "How they fight indicates military training, rather than terrorist training."

Kimmitt said at his briefing that only one coalition soldier had been killed during the day, but announcements in Baghdad frequently lag behind reports in the field and his tally apparently did not include the dead Marines at Fallujah and Ramadi. At least 47 Americans died in fighting last week.

Kimmitt said he had no information on what the terms were that Iraqi Governing Council members were negotiating in Fallujah. He said the talks "would not be timed with a clock or a calendar, but would be judged based on when progress is no longer being made."

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(Knight Ridder correspondents David Swanson, Patrick Peterson and Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report).

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

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