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Iraq: Fighting Rages On, Testing Coalition's Resolve

A U.S Marine operation against Sunni insurgents continued in Iraq today as the U.S.-led coalition vowed to destroy a Shi'a cleric's rebellious militia. The latest wave of fighting is seen as testing the resolve of coalition troops in Iraq. Ukraine announced it has withdrawn from a flashpoint town in the south, while Bulgaria reaffirmed its determination to continue its engagement in Iraq, despite its troops coming under attack.

Prague, 7 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Battles in two flashpoint Sunni cities raged today after 12 U.S. Marines and dozens of Iraqis were killed yesterday. At least 31 coalition soldiers and some 160 Iraqis have lost their lives in fighting since 4 April.

U.S. Marines today are pursuing large-scale operations in the restive cities of Al-Ramadi and Al-Fallujah, in the so-called Sunni Triangle west of Baghdad. The area has been a bastion of anti-U.S. insurgency since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Fierce fighting is reportedly under way in Al-Fallujah, where U.S. forces are involved in a major crackdown after the killings last week of four American private security guards in the city. News agencies report that a U.S. helicopter fired rockets at a mosque in the city, killing some 40 insurgents who were hiding inside.

Twenty-five civilians in Al-Fallujah are reported to have been killed in a house apparently destroyed in a separate helicopter strike. A U.S. military spokeswoman in Baghdad said she has no word on the incident.

U.S. Army Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt today confirmed that U.S. Marines are fighting inside the city.

"There has been enemy resistance [in Al-Fallujah], and the Marines have repeatedly repelled that resistance, as well as conducting raids against key targets in the heart of Fallujah city."

Eight Iraqis were killed today in the northern city of Kirkuk, in clashes between U.S. forces and a crowd of anti-U.S. protesters.

U.S. forces are involved in a major crackdown in Al-Fallujah, where four U.S. citizens were killed last week.
Elsewhere in Iraq, coalition troops have been fighting gun battles with members of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Al-Mahdi Army militia in the southern cities of Al-Nasiriyah, Al-Amarah, Al-Kut, and Karbala.

News agencies reported that the head of al-Sadr's office in Karbala was killed in fighting with Polish troops in the city.

Kimmitt today vowed to destroy al-Sadr's Al-Mahdi Army.

"In the central and southern regions of Iraq, the coalition and Iraqi security forces are conducting operations to destroy the Mahdi Army," Kimmitt said. "In Baghdad, the 1st Armored Division remains on the offensive, conducting intelligence-based raids to destroy elements of the Mahdi Army attempting to intimidate the population, [and] secure government buildings and Iraqi police stations."

Kimmitt also said U.S. forces are hunting members of the Al-Mahdi Army in the mainly Shi'a neighborhood of Al-Sadr City in Baghdad, where bloody clashes on 4 April killed eight U.S. soldiers and scores of Iraqis.

Meanwhile, al-Sadr, who is in Al-Najaf, released a statement appealing to all Iraqis, regardless of religion, to help expel foreign troops from the country.

Several clashes between al-Sadr's militia and non-U.S. coalition troops south of Baghdad have been reported over the past 24 hours.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry today said Ukrainian troops have withdrawn from Al-Kut after heavy fighting with al-Sadr supporters, who now control the city. The ministry said fighting lasted for some 24 hours and left several dozen Iraqis and one Ukrainian soldier dead -- the first to be killed in combat in Iraq.

Ukraine has some 1,650 troops in Iraq, part of a 9,000-strong Polish-led force controlling a swath of the country south of Baghdad.

The Bulgarian base in Karbala also came under heavy fire, while Polish and Spanish troops clashed with Shi'a fighters.

A Bulgarian truck driver was killed in a separate incident.

Bulgaria has asked the United States to send troops to reinforce Sofia's 450-strong battalion in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala. Bulgarian Chief of Staff General Nikola Kolev said the Bulgarian military base had come under heavy machine-gun fire yesterday, but there were no casualties.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ivan Petkov said Bulgaria "firmly reasserts" its decision to continue its engagement in Iraq.

In Al-Nasiriyah, Italian forces killed 15 Shi'a insurgents yesterday, while in Amara, British troops killed another 15 Iraqis over the past two days.

A soldier from El Salvador was killed in Iraq on 4 April.

Analysts say the latest fighting is severely testing the resolve of the United States' partners in Iraq. Since the beginning of the Iraqi conflict, 17 Italians, 11 Spaniards, five Bulgarians, three Ukrainians, and two Poles have died in Iraq. Fifty-eight British troops have also been killed.

A terrorist attack last month in Madrid, which left 191 people dead, is believed to have been in retaliation for Spain's support for the U.S. in Iraq.

Defense analyst Timothy Garden of the London-based Center for Defense Studies said he believes attacks such as those in Madrid, as well as military casualties, are unlikely to convince U.S. allies in Iraq to change their stance.

Instead, Garden said, it is the stabilization and democratization of Iraq that some allies are unsatisfied with.

"I think those nations that feel they want to help with the rebuilding of Iraq will sustain their contribution," Garden said. "This is about stabilizing [Iraq] after the war, and nations have taken different views, and you have some of the European nations feeling that they don't want to take part in this until the UN is clearly in the lead. Now, I think it's the politics of that that are more important perhaps than whether the troops are coming under fire. We see the new Spanish government revising its view on whether it wishes to have forces there, but they are doing it on the basis, not of whether they come under fire or not, but whether the political process in Iraq is right or not."

Garden said he believes those countries that supported the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq from the beginning have a responsibility to finish the job and help bring democracy to the country.

"Any nation that supported the intervention in Iraq -- and that includes certainly Britain, Spain, Australia, Poland and a number of others -- now have a legal and moral responsibility to bring peace and sort out the country," Garden said. "Other nations should be invited, too, and their views should be taken into account in terms of the process by which Iraq goes to democracy. But those of us who started this will have to pay the price to finish it, I think."