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U.S. Troops Mass Outside Al-Najaf; Truce Extended In Al-Fallujah

Prague, 14 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. forces are gathered on the northern outskirts of Al-Najaf today and are preparing for possible military action against a radical Shi'a militia force whose leader is thought to be sheltering in the city.

Meanwhile, an Iraqi mediator says an unofficial truce at the besieged Sunni Muslim city of Al-Fallujah has been extended until 16 April as officials from the Iraqi Governing Council attempt to broker peace talks there.

About 2,500 U.S. troops were deployed near Al-Najaf yesterday to reinforce other coalition troops in a standoff against the Al-Mahdi Army of the radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The militia this month revolted in areas of Baghdad and southern Iraq.

U.S. military leaders have said they will "kill or capture" al-Sadr. But, so far, with Shi'a Muslims from around the world gathering in Al-Najaf for the Arbain religious pilgrimage, U.S. forces have been careful not to become engaged in combat within the city.

Al-Sadr has called for a bloody revolt against coalition forces. Speaking yesterday on Lebanon's Al-Mansar television, al-Sadr said he is ready to die in battle against U.S.-led forces.

"I fear only God. That is first and foremost. And I am ready to sacrifice my blood for this country. But I call on the Iraqi people -- and this is my second message to the Iraqi people -- not to let my killing end their rejection of the occupation and their demands for independence and freedom," al-Sadr said.

Speaking at a press conference last night, U.S. President George W. Bush called on al-Sadr to disband what he called his "illegal" militia. Bush also said he is ready to meet the request of U.S. military commanders for an additional 10,000 troops to be sent to Iraq.

"Troop strength now and in the future is determined by the situation on the ground. If additional forces are needed, I will send them. If additional resources are needed, we will provide them," Bush said.

The fresh U.S. deployments at Al-Najaf are bolstering a Polish-led force in southern Iraq of about 9,500 international troops. That force came under fire in three separate incidents overnight in Al-Najaf and the nearby Shi'a holy city of Karbala.

Spanish troops in Al-Najaf were attacked with mortars shortly before midnight. A Bulgarian base in Karbala also came under mortar fire and a Bulgarian patrol in Karbala was targeted by gunmen.

Members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps also were attacked at a water distillation plant in the nearby town of Diwaniya overnight. A Polish military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Strzelecki, said none of the attacks resulted in any injuries.

In the besieged Sunni Muslim city of Al-Fallujah west of Baghdad, an Iraqi mediator says that U.S. troops and insurgents today extended their shaky cease-fire agreement for another 48 hours.

Since the weekend, when the U.S. first announced what it called a "temporary cessation of offensive operations" at Al-Fallujah, battles lasting several hours have been waged every night by insurgents using heavy machine guns, rockets, and mortars.

U.S. military officials say the Marines who are entrenched on the outskirts of the city are only responding to attacks against them. They say the major offensive that was launched against insurgents in Al-Fallujah on 4 April remains on hold as officials from the Iraqi Governing Council attempt to get talks started on a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Iraqi hospital officials in Al-Fallujah report 600 Iraqis have been killed in the fighting there so far and that more than 1,250 people have been injured. The Iraqi sources say more than half of the dead are women and children.

U.S. military officials say more than 80 U.S. soldiers have died in combat since the start of April, making the last two weeks the bloodiest for U.S. forces in Iraq since the invasion 13 months ago.

The United States says about 40 hostages from 12 countries are now being held by Iraqi insurgents, as suspected incidents of kidnapping continue.