FALLUJAH, Iraq — U.S. forces killed dozens of insurgents and seized three suicide explosive belts during heavy fighting in this Sunni Muslim city yesterday, while preparations for a religious festival complicated plans to retake southern cities held by followers of radical Shi’ite cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr.
Operations were particularly difficult in the rebel-held city of Najaf, where thousands of pilgrims filled the streets around the office where Sheik al-Sadr is thought to be ensconced, according to Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the Army’s top commander in Iraq.
The Pentagon’s Central Command reported six new American combat deaths in the past two days, four of them in scattered incidents north of Baghdad. Forty Americans have been killed in combat across Iraq this week.
In Fallujah, Marines backed by AC-130 gunships combed through a mainly industrial area of the city captured during three previous days of combat, battling snipers perched in the steeplelike minarets of Fallujah’s many mosques.
“If we can drive them to the surface, we can kill them,” said Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne, commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment, from his command post in Fallujah. “That is our strategy.”
One Marine was killed Wednesday and another yesterday in Fallujah. A hospital director told the Associated Press that more than 280 Iraqis have died in the city where four Americans were killed and their bodies mutilated last week.
“Those are anticoalition forces that are being brought [to the hospital] by their fellow jihadis,” Col. Byrne insisted. “We have had limited dealings with civilians. As we move more into [residential areas], we will treat the civilians with the appropriate dignity, decency and respect.”
A convoy carrying food and medicine sent by Sunni clerics in Baghdad was permitted to enter the city after extensive negotiations.
Marines also captured large quantities of plastic explosives — enough to blow up a city block, one said — and found three sophisticated suicide belts, two of them on the bodies of dead insurgents. Col. Byrne described the devices as money belts stuffed with plastic explosives and lead fishing weights, each with a detonator wire.
In one neighborhood, the Marines said, they broke into the house of a suspected sniper but found only a long-distance truck driver cowering in fear.
They gave the man, who had been hiding for two days, a case of bottled water and some packaged meals but confiscated his AK-47 rifle. They said the man came to the door, his eyes swollen with tears, to wave goodbye.
U.S. commanders promised that additional troops would be sent to help out in Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, but declined to say whether Americans would be sent to assist allied forces facing a separate Shi’ite rebellion in the south.
Black-clad members of Sheik al Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army were in full control of Kut and Kufa as well as the central part of Najaf, a holy city where thousands of Shi’ite pilgrims have been gathering for weekend ceremonies related to the seventh century death of a Shi’ite saint.
In Baghdad, chief American Administrator L. Paul Bremer warned pilgrims of the danger of terror attacks on mosques during the holiday, recalling explosions that killed about 150 people in Baghdad and Karbala during a similar holiday last month.
Gen. Sanchez acknowledged that the crowds were hampering attempts to move against Sheik al-Sadr, whose office issued a statement saying the dual uprisings by Sunnis and Shi’ites “have shown that all the Iraqi people are united.”
Nevertheless, there was little evidence that the great majority of Shi’ites — who at first welcomed the American entry into Iraq — have been rallying behind the radical 30-year-old preacher.
Gen. Sanchez said coalition forces would move “imminently” to clear Mahdi’s Army militants from Kut, which was abandoned on Wednesday by its Ukrainian garrison after an all-night battle with the insurgents.
However, it was not clear how that would be achieved without the help of American troops. Several coalition countries had been placed in the south precisely because they had not been expected to face combat. In the case of the Bulgarians, their mandate forbids them to engage in battle.
Polish and Bulgarian soldiers proved more effective yesterday, fending off an attack on their positions during all-night battles in Karbala, a Polish spokesman told the AP.
U.S.-trained police also have been ineffective in defense of the southern cities, and members of an American-trained civil-defense force were seen supplying ammunition to insurgents in Fallujah on Wednesday.
Iraqi Interior Minister Nuri al-Badran presented his resignation to Mr. Bremer yesterday, but it was not clear whether the poor performance of the forces who answered to him was a factor.
Authorities said Mr. Bremer wanted to replace Mr. al-Badran, a Shi’ite, with a Sunni to provide a better balance in the government.