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U.S. Forces Suspend Offensive In Al-Fallujah

Prague, 9 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. military has suspended an offensive against insurgents in the Iraqi city of Al-Fallujah to allow for talks aimed at resolving six days of fighting that has killed up to 300 Iraqis.

U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer today said U.S. forces initiated the suspension so that there can be talks between leaders of local Sunni Muslims, insurgents, and the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. He said the suspension will also allow for the delivery of aid and attention to casualties.

"Today at noon, coalition forces have initiated a unilateral suspension of offensive operations in Fallujah in order to hold meetings between members of the Governing Council, the Fallujah leadership and the leadership of the anticoalition forces, to allow the delivery of additional supplies by the relevant departments of the Iraqi government and to allow residents of Fallujah to tend to their wounded and dead," Bremer said. Bremer said the U.S. military would remain poised to continue its crackdown on guerrillas if talks failed.

The announcement comes one year to the day after Baghdad's capture by U.S. forces toppling Saddam Hussein, with U.S. forces on high alert for possible guerrilla attacks planned to coincide with the anniversary.

Meanwhile, later in the day, an explosion shook an international hotel in downtown Baghdad but early reports suggested there were no casualties. Reuters reported that the blast was the result of a mortar round that landed on a house near the Sheraton Hotel, which along with the Palestine Hotel houses many foreign diplomats, contractors, businesspeople, and journalists.

The U.S. has deployed at least 1,500 combat troops with tanks in the region of Al-Fallujah and the nearby town of Al-Ramadi as part of a pacification operation that has proven both difficult and bloody. Hospital officials in Al-Fallujah have reported up to 300 Iraqis killed over the past week. U.S. forces have also taken severe casualties, including 12 Marines killed earlier this week near Al-Ramadi.

Amid the fighting, U.S. forces dropped two 227-kilogram bombs and fired rockets at the wall of a mosque in Al-Fallujah on 7 April to attack insurgents taking refuge in the compound. The strike on the mosque compound heightened public tensions over the fighting, which comes as Shi'a militants in parts of southern Iraq also challenge coalition forces.

There are reports that U.S. forces have gained control of the southeastern Iraqi town of Al-Kut, two days after Ukrainian troops withdrew due to clashes with Shi'a Muslims. The U.S. military had said it would act soon to retake Al-Kut, which, along with Kufa and Al-Najaf, has been under the full or partial control of Shi'a militias.

Yesterday, a convoy of trucks carrying thousands of Sunni and Shi'a Muslims from Baghdad forced its way past U.S. military roadblocks in a bid to bring food and medicine to Al-Fallujah. U.S. troops stepped aside to allow the convoy past after the large crowd threw stones and appeared ready to riot. The convoy reportedly was organized by the Iraqi Red Crescent with permission from U.S.-led authorities.

U.S. military officials said yesterday they were making "measurable" progress in reestablishing coalition authority over much of Al-Fallujah, but varying levels of armed resistance appear to remain.

The U.S.-appointed Iraqi administration today canceled a major international oil and gas conference that had been planned for later this month in the southern city of Al-Basrah. Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum cited security reasons for indefinitely postponing the conference, which had been planned for 18-19 April to outline new policies to attract investors to Iraq's energy sector.

Bremer today also announced he has appointed a Sunni Governing Council member, Samir Shakir Mahmud al-Sumaydi'i, as Iraq's new interior minister. Yesterday, a Shi'ite, Nuri Badran, resigned from the post.

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