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Fragile truce frays in Fallujah

US copter downed near Baghdad; 2 die

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- A fragile cease-fire between Sunni insurgents and Marines showed signs of faltering this morning in the besieged city of Fallujah, where Iraqis said more than 600 civilians were killed in the past week.

The sound of explosions and gunfire echoed from one area of the city, and US helicopters were overhead. Iraqi fighters accused US forces of breaking the truce. The US military said the truce was still intact and its soldiers were only fighting in self-defense.

The military did not report casualties from the skirmishes. Elsewhere, however, fighting claimed five US soldiers yesterday, including two crew members who died when gunmen downed their US attack helicopter near Baghdad. Three Marines were killed in fighting west of Baghdad. At least 12 other troops died in previously unreported episodes Friday and Saturday, including ferocious battles in the city of Baquba, northeast of Baghdad.

In Fallujah, most of the Iraqis killed in fighting that started April 5 were women, children, and elderly, the director of the city hospital, Rafie al-Issawi, said. A Marine commander disputed that, saying most of the dead were probably insurgents. The US military has laid siege to this city. It announced a unilateral suspension of hostilities on Friday and suggested a bilateral ceasefire on Saturday, but neither move halted the fighting. An informal truce was agreed on yesterday, which halted most fighting during the day.

Fallujah residents used the lull to bury their dead in two soccer fields. One of the fields had rows of freshly dug graves; some had headstones marked with the names of women or noting that the dead were children.

During the lull, Marines distributed food to residents. At least three convoys of food and medicine were brought into the mostly Sunni city, including one organized by Shi'ite leaders in Baghdad as a sign of unity.

Hundreds of Marine reinforcements moved in around the city, joining 1,200 Marines and 900 Iraqis. The military has warned it may resume an all-out assault against Sunni insurgents if negotiations, focused on extending the cease-fire and restoring police control of the city, fall through.

The Fallujah violence spilled over to the western entrance of Baghdad, where gunmen shot down an AH-64 Apache helicopter. As a team moved in to secure the bodies of the two dead crewmen, a large force of tanks and troops pushed down the highway outside the Iraqi capital, aiming to crush the insurgents.

Gunmen have run rampant in the Abu Ghraib district west of Baghdad for three days, attacking fuel convoys, killing a US soldier and two American civilians, and kidnapping an American.

The captors of Thomas Hamill, a Mississippi native who works for a US contractor in Iraq, threatened to kill and burn him unless US troops ended their assault on Fallujah, west of Baghdad. The deadline, 6 a.m. yesterday, passed with no word on Hamill's fate.

China's official Xinhua News Agency reported that gunmen had kidnapped seven Chinese in central Iraq. The report cited a Chinese diplomat in Baghdad, but gave no details. The Arab television station Al-Arabiya reported that insurgents seized the Chinese north of Fallujah yesterday evening, also citing Chinese diplomatic sources. Insurgents who kidnapped other foreigners last week began releasing some captives. A Briton was freed, and other kidnappers said they were releasing eight captives of various nationalities. Other insurgents who kidnapped two Japanese men and a woman said Saturday that they would free their captives within 24 hours, but they had not been released by yesterday evening.

The recent deaths brought to 62 the number of American soldiers killed since the new fronts of violence erupted April 4. Nearly 900 Iraqis have been killed in the same period. At least 666 US soldiers have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.

In the south of Iraq, the US military suggested it is open to a negotiated solution in its showdown with a radical Shi'ite cleric. Iraqi Governing Council members were holding discussions with the followers of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia rose up in a bloody revolt last week against coalition troops and largely controls three southern cities, Karbala, Kufa, and Najaf.

The south was relatively calm, as up to 1.5 million Shi'ite pilgrims marked Arba'in, one of the holiest days of their religious calendar, in Karbala yesterday, with Sadr's militiamen and other gunmen patrolling the streets.

US commanders have said they would delay any action against Sadr until after the holiday, which ended yesterday. But US officials suggested for the first time that they were open to a nonmilitary solution to the confrontation.

A US coalition spokesman, Dan Senor, would not comment on Iraqi talks with Sadr's followers, but added, "I would say that our goal is to minimize bloodshed and to head off any sort of conflict."

"We don't see it as a necessary requirement that any military action has to occur in Najaf," Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said.

US troops retook the city of Kut from Sadr's followers in recent days, in the first major foray in months by the American military into southern Iraq, where US allies have security duties.

But military action to retake the other cities could require fighting near some of Shi'ite Islam's holiest shrines, raising the possibility of enflaming Shi'ite anger at the US-led occupation.

"There are many ways for the town of Najaf to come back under legitimate control of the Iraqi government, coalition provisions authority, and that don't involve any fighting at all," Kimmitt said.

US-allied Iraqi leaders have increasingly expressed anger at the bloodshed in Iraq over the past week, saying the military has used excessive force.

Over a third of the Fallujah's 200,000 residents fled the city during the lull in the fighting, Marines said. Issawi, the Fallujah hospital director, said the number of Iraqi dead in the city was probably higher than the 600 recorded at the hospital and four main clinics in the city.

"We have reports of an unknown number of dead being buried in people's homes without coming to the clinics," he said.

Bodies were being buried at two soccer fields. At one of the fields, dubbed the "Graveyard of the Martyrs" by residents, rows of freshly-dug graves with wooden planks for headstones covered an area about 30 yards wide by more than 100 yards long.

Khalaf al-Jumaili, a volunteer helping bury bodies at the field, said more than 300 people had been interred there. Volunteers were seen carrying bodies in blankets and lowering them into graves while bystanders shouted, "Martyr! Martyr!"

It was not known how many were buried at the other soccer field.

Asked about the report of 600 dead, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne said, "What I think you will find is 95 percent of those were military-age males that were killed in the fighting."

"The Marines are trained to be precise in their firepower. . . . The fact that there are 600 goes back to the fact that the Marines are very good at what they do," he said.

Material from Reuters was used in this story.

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