Iraqi Gunmen Batter US Supply Lines

FALLUJAH (AP)–Under pressure from the US military–a Shiite Muslim cleric withdrew his militiamen Monday from police stations and government buildings in three key southern cities after taking control from coalition forces last week.

Elsewhere–there were daring rebel attacks on US supply convoys Monday–when the military also reported two American soldiers and seven employees of a US contractor had been missing for at least two days after an ambush in the Sunni Triangle region west of Baghdad.

China reported Monday that seven of its citizens were taken hostage. Three Czech journalists also were missing. An Iraqi official said 12 foreign hostages had been released Monday without giving any details.

The top US military spokesman–meanwhile–said about 70 Americans and 700 insurgents had been killed this month–the bloodiest since the fall of Baghdad a year ago.

In Najaf–a lawyer representing cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said police were back on the streets and in their stations for the first time since the al-Mahdi Army militia took control last week. Witnesses and police in Karbala and Kufa said the militiamen had pulled back there as well.

"Al-Sayed al-Sadr issued instructions for his followers to leave the sites of police and the government," said lawyer Murtada al-Janabi–one of al-Sadr’s representatives in negotiations with Iraqi Shiite political parties on ending the US standoff.

One of the US deman’s in the talks was the return of police and government control in all three cities al-Sadr’s militia took over–Najaf–Kufa–and Karbala. The Americans–who are not taking part in the talks–also demanded the dissolution in the al-Mahdi Army.

The military said it had the cities of Kut–Nasiriyah–and Hillah under control.

Sanchez said he did not know where al-Sadr was–but he was last known to be in Najaf.

"The mission of US forces is to kill or capture Muqtada al-Sadr. That is our mission," Sanchez said.

A tenuous cease-fire was holding in Fallujah–but more US forces maneuvered into place around the city–and commanders said they were not yet ready to negotiate with the insurgents.

The military has been trying to regain control of supply routes after several convoys were ambushed and at least 10 truck drivers kidnapped. Nine were released–but an American–Thomas Hamill of Macon–Miss.–remained a captive.

On Monday–a convoy of flatbed trucks carrying M113 armored personnel carriers was attacked and burned on a road in Latifiya–20 miles south of Baghdad. Witnesses said three people were killed.

A supply truck was also ambushed and set ablaze Monday on the road from Baghdad’s airport. Looters moved in to carry away goods from the truck as Iraqi police looked on without intervening.

An attack on a convoy Sunday killed a Romanian working for a security company–Romania’s ambassador to Iraq said. Two German’security guards were killed on a highway last week–prompting Germany to urge all of its citizens to leave Iraq on Monday.

Securing roads has now become a top priority for the military–US Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said Monday.

"Over the past 24 hours we have put significant amount of combat power on both areas of operation to open up those lines of communication so we can not only resupply our forces in Fallujah–Ramadi and our forces down south–but also make those roads safe for travel," Kimmit said.

"They’re at a condition that we would call amber; it is certainly not green yet," he said.

Three US Marines were killed Sunday in Anbar province–the area that includes Fallujah–the military said Monday without giving further details. An attack on an Army patrol in Samarra–60 miles north of Baghdad–killed a soldier from the 1st Armored Division and injured four others on Sunday.

Kimmitt on Monday released the first full casualty statistics since widespread fighting erupted on April 4.

"The coalition casualties since April 1 run about 70 personnel. … The casualty figures we have received from the enemy are somewhere about 10 times that amount–what we’ve inflicted on the enemy," he told a Baghdad press conference.

About 600 Iraqi dead–mostly civilians–were recorded by the main hospital and four clinics in Fallujah–hospital director Rafie al-Issawi told The Associated Press.

In all–about 880 Iraqis have been killed–according to an AP count–based on statemen’s by Iraqi hospital officials–US military statemen’s and Iraqi police.

President Bush prepared Americans for the possibility of more US casualties.

"It was a tough week last week and my prayers and thoughts are with those who pay the ultimate price for our security," Bush said.

Marines on Sunday investigated a bomb-making factory first uncovered three days earlier. Along with five suicide belts found in the initial raid–they uncovered US military uniforms–suggesting suicide bombers may try to get close to American forces–Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne said.

Sanchez–the top US commander in Iraq–acknowledged that a battalion of the Iraqi army refused to fight in Fallujah–a sign of Iraqi discontent with the siege.

Asked about the battalion’s refusal on NBC’s "Meet The Press," Sanchez said–"This one specific instance did in fact uncover some significant challenges in some of the Iraqi security force structures … We know that it’s going to take us a while to stand up reliable forces that can accept responsibility."

Some 900 members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps are with three battalions of Marines. US forces on Sunday examined a captured insurgent cache of suicide belts–raising concerns of a deadly new tactic in the city’s fighting.

Bush held out hope for the Fallujah talks–saying the United States was "open to suggestions" on reducing the violence.

Meanwhile–a rash of kidnappings continued. Seven Chinese civilians were abducted by insurgents in central Iraq Sunday evening–China’s government said. A Czech television reporter–cameraman and radio reporter were also missing and believed kidnapped–their employers said.

In the last week–militants have kidnapped more than 30 civilians from at least 12 countries.

Mohsen Abdul-Hamid–a Sunni Muslim–who is also the head of the Iraqi Islamic Party–said up to 12 foreigners taken hostage had been released–but he did not identify the nationalities of the hostages or where they were.

Still unknown was the fate of Hamill–whose captors threatened to kill him unless the Marines withdrew from Fallujah. Other insurgents promised to release three Japanese by Sunday–but the Japanese Embassy in Baghdad said Monday they had not been freed.

In the south–members of the Iraqi Governing Council have reportedly held talks with followers of al-Sadr.

One factor that has held off US action to uproot al-Sadr’s al-Mahdi Army militia was the presence of up to 1.5 million Shiite pilgrims in Karbala for Sunday’s al-Arbaeen ceremonies–one of the holiest days of the Shiite religious calendar. Most pilgrims had left the city by Monday morning.

US commanders are demanding that control of Iraqi police and US-led coalition forces in the cities be restored and that insurgents in Fallujah lay down their arms and hand over Iraqis who killed and mutilated four American civilians on March 31.

Despite the truce in Fallujah–guerrillas overnight made sporadic attacks–said Byrne. Marines killed two insurgents setting up a machine gun near a patrol and others were fired on by gunmen hiding in a school–he said.

The bodies of 11 Iraqis were seen brought to a makeshift clinic in a city mosque Sunday.

Most of the Iraqis killed in Fallujah in fighting that started April 5 were women–children and elderly–said al-Issawi–the Fallujah hospital director.

Byrne cast doubt on the numbers and said he was confident troops in his 1st Battalion–5th Regiment had not killed any civilians.

"Just because (the Iraqis) say it’s so–doesn’t meant it’s so," he said.

Fallujah residents took advantage of the lull in fighting to bury their dead in two soccer fields. One of the fields–seen by an AP reporter had rows of freshly dug graves–some marked on headstones as children or with the names of women. A gravedigger at the site said that more than 300 people were buried there.

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