Tuesday, April 13, 2004

BAGHDAD — Nine Americans, including two soldiers, are missing in Iraq in a hostage-taking spree in which suspected Islamist militants have seized more than 40 foreigners in a bid to undermine the U.S.-led reconstruction effort.

The road to Baghdad International Airport remained closed yesterday for the second straight day amid a series of attacks on cars and convoys to and from the facility. Long lines formed at ticket counters for the limited number of commercial flights in and out of Iraq.

The security deteriorated even as clerics, sheiks and U.S.-appointed Iraqi officials continued talks to try to keep a shaky truce from crumbling in the Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah, about 35 miles outside the capital, Baghdad.



Marines reinforced positions for an all-out push in Fallujah if the negotiations fail.

At least a third of Fallujah’s population of 200,000 has fled, and mosques in Baghdad filled up with offers from families to take in strangers from the violence-torn city.

However, not all the news was bad.

A Shi’ite Muslim cleric agreed to withdraw his military from police stations and public buildings as the U.S. military prepared to strike, as it had done in Fallujah eight days ago.

Fallujah remained relatively quiet. But snipers continued trying to pick off Marines after a week of ferocious firefights.

The city, known for its many mosques, which have become fortresses for armed fighters in the latest clashes, features densely packed residential neighborhoods with narrow, winding alleys.

The United States said 70 Americans had died in fighting since the beginning of April, and that at least 10 times as many Iraqis had died in that period, the biggest total since the fall of Baghdad a year ago.

President Bush tried to prepare the American people for more casualties as the June 30 deadline approaches for the turnover of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government.

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

Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, said he had asked the Pentagon for two more “strong and mobile” brigades to be sent to Iraq.

U.S. forces, who have struggled for months to quell a rebellion in the so-called Sunni Triangle, face a second revolt led by radical cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr in the Shi’ite south.

“The mission of U.S. forces is to kill or capture Muqtada al-Sadr,” said Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of the American forces in Iraq.

In Najaf, a lawyer who represents Sheik al-Sadr told the Associated Press that police were back on the streets and in their stations for the first time since the Mahdi’s Army militia took control last week.

Witnesses and police in Karbala and Kufa said the sheik’s militiamen had pulled back there as well, the AP reported.

“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 Sheik al-Sadr’s representatives in negotiations with Iraqi Shi’ite political parties on ending the standoff with the U.S.-led forces.

Elsewhere, insurgents attacked a convoy of flatbed trucks carrying M113 armored personnel carriers about 20 miles south of Baghdad. Witnesses said three persons were killed.

Insurgents also set ablaze a supply truck on the road from Baghdad to the airport, which has been closed since Sunday, when an Apache helicopter was brought down.

The U.S. military said two American soldiers and seven employees of a U.S. contracting firm have been missing since Friday, after being ambushed in the Sunni Triangle west of Baghdad.

Three Japanese were among the foreigners being held by guerrillas, and three Czech journalists were the latest to disappear.

Eleven Russians working for an energy company have been kidnapped in Baghdad after a shootout between the abductors and their Iraqi guards, Al Jazeera television reported, citing an unnamed Russian source.

Xinhua, China’s official news agency, said seven Chinese nationals kidnapped in Iraq had been released.

Mohsen Abdel Hamid, a member of Iraq’s U.S.-appointed Governing Council, said 12 foreign hostages had been freed after the Association of Muslim Clerics issued an edict condemning the abductions.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations’ envoy to Iraq, was in the country holding negotiations on elections that are scheduled to take place early next year.

• This article is based on wire service reports.

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