BAGHDAD, Iraq – A U.S. AC-130 gunship raked targets in Fallujah on Friday night after hundreds of women and children fled the besieged city during a pause in the Marine offensive. On the anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Baghdad and parts of central Iraq were chaotic.
At a square in the capital where Saddam’s statue was toppled a year ago, soldiers took down a disturbing new icon: pictures of the radical Shiite cleric whose followers have risen up against coalition forces in the south.
Gunmen running rampant on Baghdad’s western edge attacked a fuel convoy, killing a U.S. soldier and an Iraqi driver and causing a fiery explosion that sent up a pall of black smoke. A Baghdad correspondent for Al-Jazeera Arab television said at least nine people were killed.
Another U.S. soldier was killed in an attack on a base elsewhere in the capital, and large groups of insurgents battled U.S. troops in two cities to the north, Baqouba and Muqdadiyah.
The military also announced the deaths of three Marines a day earlier, bringing the toll of U.S. troops killed across Iraq this week to 45. The fighting has killed more than 460 Iraqis — including more than 280 in Fallujah, a hospital official said. At least 646 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.
For the first time, U.S. troops moved in strength into the heartland of the rebellion by the militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. More than 1,000 troops backed by tanks pushed into the southern city of Kut, retaking police stations and government buildings seized this week by Shiite gunmen.
Elsewhere, fighting with al-Sadr’s al-Mahdi Army militia diminished. Coalition forces largely left gunmen in firm control in three cities of south central Iraq, and further south, coalition troops have largely succeeded in taming the uprising, though Italian troops still saw light fighting in the city of Nasiriyah.
In Fallujah, Marines halted their assault on Sunni insurgents to allow U.S.-picked Iraqi leaders — angry at the United States over the bloodshed from five days of heavy fighting — to hold talks with city leaders about how to reduce the violence.
Throughout the afternoon, fighting was reduced to sporadic gunfire. But when night fell, heavy explosions resumed as an AC-130 gunship strafed targets and soldiers and insurgents engaged in a mortar battle.
Iraq’s top U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer, said the unilateral pause was also aimed at allowing humanitarian aid to enter the city and Fallujah residents to tend to their dead.
Many families, emerging from their homes for the first time in days, buried slain relatives in the city football stadium.
A stream of hundreds of cars carrying women, children and elderly headed out of the city after Marines announced they would be allowed to leave. Families pleaded to be allowed to take out men, and when Marines refused, some entire families turned back.
The heavy fighting in Fallujah — during which mosques have been damaged and buildings demolished — has made the city of 200,000 a symbol of resistance for some Iraqis and threatens to divide the Iraqi Governing Council and the U.S. administration that appointed it.
Marines agreed only grudgingly to a halt in fighting. After initially being ordered to cease all offensive operations, they quickly demanded and received permission to launch assaults to prevent attacks if needed.
“We said to them (the commanders): ‘We are going to lose people if we don’t go back on offensive ops.’ So we got the word,” Marine Maj. Pete Farnun told The Associated Press.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt underlined that talks between two Governing Council members and sheiks and clerics representing Fallujah representatives were not negotiations, suggesting the military would not be making concessions. U.S. officials were not participating in the talks, which began Friday.
Abdul-Karim Mahoud al-Mohammedawi, a Shiite on the Governing Council, announced he was suspending his council seat until “the bleeding stops in all Iraq.” He also met Friday with al-Sadr, whom U.S. commanders have vowed to capture.
A Sunni council member, Ghazi al-Yawer, said he would quit if the Fallujah talks fell through.
One of the strongest pro-U.S. voices on the council, also a Sunni, Adnan Pachachi, denounced the U.S. siege. “It was not right to punish all the people of Fallujah, and we consider these operations by the Americans unacceptable and illegal,” Pachachi told Al-Arabiya TV.
Meanwhile, in a signal of how U.S. forces face a new enemy in Iraq, two pictures of al-Sadr hung from a sculpture in Baghdad’s central Firdos Square, where one year ago Marines toppled a statue of Saddam.
A U.S. soldier climbed a ladder to tear down the posters, and the military warned that al-Sadr’s followers were planning bomb attacks in the area. Hours later, a mortar hit nearby, shaking two hotels where foreign journalists and contractors are staying.
U.S. troops drove into Kut before dawn Friday, pushing out members of al-Sadr’s al-Mahdi Army militia that seized the southern textile and farming center this week after Ukrainian troops abandoned the city under heavy attack.
A U.S. helicopter struck al-Sadr’s main office in Kut, killing two people, witnesses said. Americans were patrolling the streets during daylight.
Kimmitt said he expected the operation to retake Kut would be finished by Saturday morning. “We are fairly comfortable that the town of al-Kut is well on its way to coming back under coalition control,” he said.
Still, he suggested a move against al-Sadr’s militia controlling parts of Najaf and Karbala would have to wait, because hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims are in the area this weekend for al-Arbaeen, which commemorates the end of the period of mourning for a 7th-century martyred saint.
“We expect that those special cities that are currently observing the Arbaeen will continue to have some al-Sadr presence,” he told reporters.
Al-Sadr on Friday demanded U.S. forces leave Iraq, saying they now face “a civil revolt.”
“I direct my speech to my enemy Bush and I tell him … you are fighting the entire Iraqi people,” al-Sadr said in a sermon, delivered by one of his deputies at the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, Shiite Islam’s holiest site.
Al-Sadr, a young, firebrand anti-U.S. cleric, is thought to be holed up in his office in Najaf, protected by scores of gunmen. He has said he is willing to die resisting any American attempt to capture him.
Gunmen on the highway outside Baghdad were seen stopping a car carrying two Western civilians — apparently private security guards, because both had sidearms. The gunmen pulled the men from the car, firing at the ground to warn them to obey. Their fate was not known.
The heavy fighting for Fallujah was prompted by the March 31 slaying of four U.S. civilians there. Their burned bodies were mutilated and dragged through the streets by a mob that hung two of them from a bridge
AP correspondents Lourdes Navarro, Bassem Mroue and Abdul-Qader Saadi contributed to this report from Fallujah.