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Delegates Broker More Talks In Al-Fallujah

Prague, 12 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said today that 70 U.S.-led coalition troops and about 700 Iraqi insurgents have been killed in fighting across Iraq since the start of the month, but that he has no "authoritative figure" on the number of Iraqi civilian deaths.

Kimmitt's comments were the first full casualty statistics released by the U.S. military since a bloody uprising by a radical Shi'a militia began on 4 April in southern Iraq and U.S. forces began a siege against Sunni insurgents in Al-Fallujah on 5 April.

Reports about the severity of the Al-Fallujah operation has raised questions as to whether the U.S. is using disproportionate force in that conflict.

But Kimmitt -- the deputy director of the coalition's military operations in Iraq -- today rejected claims by hospital officials in Al-Fallujah that some 600 Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the U.S. siege. He said those numbers have been "filtered through local propaganda" sources in Al-Fallujah and that it remains "undocumented" as to who has suffered the bulk of casualties there.

Kimmitt said women and children had been caught up in the fighting. He accused Sunni insurgents of using them as "human shields," and said the insurgents also are firing weapons at U.S. forces from inside schools, mosques, and hospitals. There was no independent confirmation of the U.S. military claims.

"We want the people [in Al-Fallujah] who killed our contractors. We want the people who desecrated their bodies." -- L. Paul Bremer
Overnight clashes in Al-Fallujah between Sunni insurgents and the U.S.-led coalition have put pressure on an informal truce declared there during the weekend. But Kimmitt says there are still hopes that a peaceful resolution can be negotiated.

"The Marines are ready, on order, to continue the operations to complete the destruction of enemy forces in Al-Fallujah. They are more than capable. They are more than equipped. They are more than armed. We are at this point, however, working a political track. And we look forward to the fruitful discussions that can come about to achieve the ultimate end state, which is to restore legitimate Iraqi control of that city," Kimmitt said.

Kimmitt explained that delegates from the Iraqi Governing Council have been traveling in and out of Al-Fallujah in recent days in an attempt to get talks started there. But he said the effort is still in the "preliminary stage" and that there have not yet been any discussions.

The chief U.S. administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, said yesterday that the United States ultimately wants the handover of the insurgents who killed four U.S. civilian contractors and five U.S. soldiers in Al-Fallujah late last month.

"We want the people [in Al-Fallujah] who killed our contractors. We want the people who desecrated their bodies. We want the people who've been killing our people. But let's wait and see first if we can get this cease-fire to stabilize. Then we'll get down to the actual discussions which are being conducted by some very brave members of the [Iraqi] Governing Council," Bremer said.

Correspondents report that residents of Al-Fallujah heard explosions and gunfire for about three hours before dawn today in one part of the city as U.S. helicopters flew overhead.

An unnamed U.S. military spokesman says two U.S. Marines were injured in the fighting and that "a significant number" of Iraqi fighters were killed. The spokesman also confirmed that a Cobra helicopter fired rockets and missiles in Al-Fallujah early today after it came under attack from insurgents.

In southern Iraq, some U.S. military officials have suggested the possibility of a negotiated solution to the standoff against the militia forces of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr's banned Imam Al-Mahdi Army has controlled the Shi'a cities of Karbala and Al-Najaf since last week. Kimmitt said today that all options remain open to the U.S.-led coalition, but he said he doesn't see military action as "a necessary requirement."

"It would certainly not be our first choice to go into the holy cities of Karbala and Al-Najaf. We certainly understand what those cities represent to the people of this country -- to the Shi'a religion. But we have an obligation and we have a responsibility to ensure that there is a safe and secure environment remaining in this country. And as long as al-Sadr and his militia continue to function within this country, we will have to consider all options necessary in order to bring al-Sadr and his militia to justice," Kimmitt said.

Bremer said yesterday the standoff with al-Sadr's militia forces will end only when al-Sadr himself is detained and brought to trial.

"What you have here is a guy [al-Sadr] who is subject to an arrest warrant issued by an Iraqi investigating magistrate and a judge for murder and we've said he has to face Iraqi justice. We are hopeful that we will be able to bring him to justice with a minimum of bloodshed," Bremer said.

Al-Najaf's police chief Ali al-Yaseri says his officers regained control of that city today under a deal between the U.S.-led coalition and militiamen loyal to al-Sadr. He said that under terms of the agreement, troops of the U.S.-led coalition will not enter Al-Najaf and that the city, instead, will be under the control of Iraqi security forces.

But both Kimmitt and coalition spokesman Dan Senor told reporters today that they do not know about any such deal on Al-Najaf. A military spokesman for the coalition in Al-Najaf, Polish Major Slawonic Walenczykowski, also said he is not aware of any deal on Al-Najaf.

Meanwhile, there are conflicting reports about the fate of three Japanese hostages -- two humanitarian volunteers and a photojournalist -- who are being held by a group calling itself the Mujahedin Brigades. That group has threatened to kill the hostages soon unless Japan withdraws its 550 troops from Iraq. Japanese diplomats say there has been "no progress at all" toward the release of those hostages.

But self-described Iraqi mediator Mezher Dulaimi says progress has been made "regarding the demands" of the kidnappers.

Seven Chinese citizens thought to have been kidnapped in Al-Fallujah after entering Iraq from Jordan yesterday became the latest foreigners to be seized as bargaining chips by the insurgents. That incident occurred ahead of tomorrow's scheduled visit to China by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney.

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