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U.S. troops will likely move into parts of Najaf soon, general says
NAJAF, Iraq (AP) U.S. troops will likely enter parts of Najaf soon to clamp down on a radical Shiite cleric's rebel militia, but they will stay away from sensitive holy sites in the center of the city to avoid rousing religious outrage, a U.S. general said Sunday.
Shiite leaders have warned of a possible explosion of anger among the country's Shiite majority if U.S. troops enter Najaf. Until now, U.S. commanders have been saying troops would not go in.
With the new move, the military seeks to impose a degree of control in Najaf, while hoping a foray limited to the modern parts of the ancient city would not inflame Shiites. Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling did not say when troops would move in, or how many.
American officials were attempting a similar, limited step in the war-torn city of Fallujah, the other main front of fighting.
U.S. troops will begin patrols alongside Iraqi security forces in Fallujah, said Hachim al-Hassani, a top Iraqi negotiator. The move is an apparent attempt to restore control over the insurgent stronghold without a full-scale Marine assault.
But like a previous agreement aimed at reducing the violence in the city, the new step hinged greatly on the response of Sunni guerrillas, who were asked to turn in their heavy weapons.
''We hope the U.S. soldiers will not be attacked when they enter the city. If they are attacked, they will respond and this will lead to problems,'' al-Hassani told The Associated Press.
He said Fallujah residents have promised not to attack. But U.S. officials have questioned whether Fallujah civic leaders who have been negotiating with the Americans have enough influence with insurgents. Guerrillas have not abided by a previous call from the civil leaders to surrender their heavy weapons, U.S. commanders say.
In Baghdad on Sunday, a roadside bomb exploded by a U.S. patrol, killing a U.S. soldier.
When the troops returned to retrieve the stricken vehicle, they found several children on it, taking material, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told reporters.
As the troops approached the vehicle, gunmen on neighboring rooftops opened fire, sparking a battle with the soldiers, he said.
Witnesses reported Iraqi casualties in the fight, but it was not immediately known if any of the children were among them.
Also Sunday, a rocket hit near a hospital in the northern city of Mosul, killing three people, doctors said. Elsewhere in the city, a mortar hit a residential area, killing one Iraqi.
In southern Iraq, U.S. military officials were trying to determine the launching point of an unprecedented suicide boat attack on two offshore oil terminals. The attackers, using explosive-packed boats, killed three U.S. service members and forced the shutdown of the two terminals.
The third victim of the attack, a U.S. Coast Guardsman, died of his injuries on Sunday.
Asked if the attackers came from inside Iraq or neighboring Iran or Kuwait, Navy Cmdr. James Graybeal, of the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said, ''That's what were trying to determine.''
Insurgents often attack oil pipelines in Iraq and have repeatedly shut down exports from northern oil fields to Turkey.
Saturday's bombings were the first such maritime attack on the industry and resembled al-Qaida-linked strikes off the coast of Yemen against the USS Cole in 2000 and a French oil tanker in 2002 that killed 17 American sailors and a tanker crewman.
President Bush held a conference call Saturday with his top commander in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid. U.S. commanders have been threatening a full-scale offensive to take Fallujah and uproot insurgents unless guerrillas hand over their heavy weapons.
But an assault would revive fighting that killed hundreds of Iraqis and at least 109 U.S. troops in April the deadliest month in Iraq for the Americans.
Al-Hassani told the AP that joint U.S.-Iraqi patrols would begin Tuesday in Fallujah, when orders will be issued forbidding residents from carrying weapons in the streets.
He said 75 families who fled Fallujah during the fighting will be allowed to return. Nearly a third of the city's 200,000 residents have fled since the siege began April 5.
A new move into parts of Najaf would also carry heavy risks.
''We probably will go into the central part of the city. Will we interfere in the religious institutions? Absolutely not,'' said Hertling, a deputy commander of the 1st Armored Division.
He did not say when the move would occur, but it appeared unlikely for several days and was aimed at tightening the clampdown on radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia.
''It's not going to be large-scale fighting, the likes of other places, but it's going to be critical,'' he said. ''We're going to drive this guy into the dirt.''
''Either he tells his militia to put down their arms, form a political party and fight with ideas not guns or he's going to find a lot of them killed,'' he said.
In Baghdad, Australian Prime Minister John Howard made a brief, surprise visit Sunday to his country's troops Sunday. Wearing camouflage body armor, Howard attended an emotional ceremony at Baghdad International Airport to honor all of Australia's veterans, but particularly the 850 troops in Iraq helping in reconstruction.
Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov also visited his country's troops, flying into their base in the southern city of Karbala. Bulgaria has a 485-member infantry battalion in Iraq under Polish command.
Meanwhile, an Army reservist missing since a convoy attack April 9 was confirmed dead. The remains of Sgt. Elmer Krause, 40, were found Friday, according to the Pentagon. Another soldier and a U.S. contract worker abducted in the same attack remain unaccounted for.
The latest deaths brought to 111 the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq since the beginning of April. At least 720 have died since the March 2003 invasion.