WASHINGTON -- Fighters loyal to a Shi'ite Muslim cleric showed signs yesterday of ceding control of three southern Iraqi cities to US-led forces, and a fragile cease-fire with Sunni insurgents in the embattled city of Fallujah appeared to be holding.
The senior American commander in Iraq, Army General John Abizaid, said he has requested two more combat brigades, or about 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers, to help battle rebels throughout the country.
Abizaid's comments on the additional forces were the first official confirmation that commanders have asked for more troops to deal with the latest spike in violence. The request was first reported by Pentagon officials last week.
Abizaid, head of the US Central Command, told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday that many of the US reinforcements will come from the First Armored Division, which was scheduled to return to Germany in the coming weeks. Some units will be kept in Iraq to help stabilize areas racked by the recent violence. Elements of the First Armored Division have already been moved from Baghdad to Al Kut in the south to help quell the Mahdi Army belonging to Sheik Moqtada al-Sadr and other Shi'a Muslim militias, he said.
Abizaid pledged yesterday that Sadr would be captured or killed by US forces. "That's our mission," he said. The fighting has killed an estimated 70 coalition troops and 700 insurgents and an undetermined number of Iraqi civilians since April 1, US officials said. Sixty-four US soldiers have been killed since April 4, they said, bringing to 671 the number of US troops who have died since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
The Associated Press said it had counted about 880 Iraqi deaths in the 10 days of fighting. News reports quoted doctors in Fallujah saying most of the 600 reported dead there were civilians.
Three more US Marines from the First Marine Expeditionary Force were killed Sunday "as a result of enemy action" in western Iraq near the borders with Syria and Jordan, the Pentagon said yesterday in a statement, providing no further details. It also said a soldier from the First Armored Division was killed when his patrol was attacked in Samarra on Sunday.
Abizaid, who spoke to reporters via a video linkup from Baghdad, also expressed "great disappointment" in the performance of newly-trained Iraqi forces in the face of the recent violence -- many have abandoned their posts -- and vowed to redouble efforts to establish a reliable security force.
Meanwhile, US commanders scrambled yesterday to learn the whereabouts of two American soldiers missing since their convoy was ambushed Friday in Abu Ghraib, as well as seven employees of Kellogg, Brown, and Root, a US contractor, who disappeared that day and are feared dead.
In the United States, hundreds of friends and family members of Thomas Hamill, an American civilian from Macon, Miss., kidnapped over the weekend, were awaiting word of the former dairy farmer's fate. Hamill's captors are demanding US forces pull out of Fallujah, the Sunni Muslim-dominated city west of Baghdad.
Militants yesterday released seven Chinese civilians who were kidnapped Thursday in Fallujah, China's Xinhua News Agency said. An Iraqi official who asked not to be identified said 12 foreign hostages had been released yesterday, but he gave no details.
Three Czech journalists were still missing and believed abducted. A Russian energy company told the Al-Jazeera satellite television station last night that 11 of its employees were kidnapped during a clash in a Baghdad neighborhood that killed two Iraqi security guards.
Much of the fighting appeared to have subsided yesterday. Lieutenant General Ricardo S. Sanchez, the ground commander in Iraq, told reporters that some of the areas that had been under the control of Sadr were firmly in US control, although he said the Shi'a holy city of Najaf and parts of Karbala were still controlled by Sadr's militia. But an attorney representing Sadr said Iraqi police were back on the streets and in their stations for the first time since the Mahdi Army took control last week. Witnesses and police in Karbala and Kufa said the militiamen had pulled back there as well.
"Sadr issued instructions for his followers to leave the sites of police and the government," said attorney Murtada al-Janabi, one of Sadr's representatives in negotiations with Iraqi Shi'ite political parties on ending the US standoff.
One of the US demands was the return of police and government control in all three cities Sadr's militia had occupied -- Najaf, Kufa and Karbala. The Americans, who are not taking part in talks led by Shi'a religious leaders, also demanded the dissolution of Sadr's Mahdi Army.
A cease-fire in Fallujah, brokered over the weekend by members of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and Sunni clerics, also appeared to be holding yesterday, officials said, although Abizaid described the situation as "tenuous," with some attacks against US forces continuing.
Despite the spate of kidnappings, US officials said they did not believe that insurgents had adopted kidnapping as a national technique. Most of the known kidnappings have taken place on the main highway linking Baghdad to Amman, in the vicinity of Abu Ghraib and Fallujah -- two areas with a high concentration of guerrilla fighting in the last year.
The groups claiming to hold hostages, for the most part, have been Sunni insurgents based in the turbulent area west of Baghdad. Members of the Mahdi Army have detained several Western journalists over the last week, but have quickly released them.
The Association of Islamic Clerics, an umbrella group of Sunni religious leaders, issued a formal edict over the weekend condemning kidnapping as a tactic.
Mohammed Qubaisy, a group spokesman, said yesterday that "kidnapping is forbidden and un-Islamic." On Saturday, the group ordered insurgents to release foreign hostages.
The additional American combat power requested by Abizaid is needed in part because of the lackluster performance by the estimated 200,000-strong Iraqi Army, civil defense, and police forces that have been trained by American authorities over the past year. Some police units in the south abandoned their posts in the face of Sadr's militia, while the first trained brigade of the new Iraqi Army refused to reinforce American troops in Fallujah last week.
Sanchez said that steps are already being taken to improve training facilities in the country, and said commanders will "reassess some of the training strategies." Abizaid added that "in the next couple of days," a large number of former senior Iraqi Army officers will be appointed to key security positions.
"The truth of the matter is that until we get well-formed chains of command, all the way in the police service from the minister of interior to the lowest patrolman on the beat in whatever city it may be, and the same for the army, from private to minister of defense, that it's going to be tough to get them to perform at the level we want," Abizaid said.
Bender reported from Washington, and Cambanis reported from Baghdad.