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Fierce Fighting Escalates In Iraq

6 August 2004 -- A week of increasing violence in Iraq has culminated with fierce clashes across central and southern Iraq between the Imam Al-Mahdi Army of Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and U.S., British, and Italian forces.

In the southern city of Al-Nasiriyah, Iraqi fighters attacked Italian patrols with rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire.

At least 20 Iraqis and one U.S. soldier were reported killed on 5 August in fighting between U.S.-led troops and Shi'a militants in Baghdad, Al-Najaf, and Al-Basrah. In Al-Najaf, militants brought down a U.S. helicopter. The U.S. military says it recovered the crew unharmed.

It was the heaviest fighting since U.S.-led troops and al-Sadr's forces agreed in June to a truce.

It was unclear whether the renewed fighting was a brief flare-up or a sign of the collapse of the shaky truce. Al-Sadr was reported today to have offered to join a new reciprocal ceasefire.
"We warn all the agents and all those who have interests in destroying Iraq that we are the striking force that will liberate Iraq from the occupiers and the agents"

"The New York Times" quotes Salama al-Khafaji, a spokesman for a government-appointed council that mediates between al-Sadr and U.S. forces, as saying the U.S. military escalated tensions by approaching al-Sadr's house in Al-Najaf with armored vehicles. But the military said militants set off the clashes with attacks.

In the southern city of Al-Amara, al-Sadr loyalists celebrated after seizing control. One masked militiaman called out a warning that he was part of a force that will liberate Iraq.

"We warn all the agents and all those who have interests in destroying Iraq that we are the striking force that will liberate Iraq from the occupiers and the agents," the militiaman said.

The renewed heavy fighting occurred as the United States pressed diplomatic efforts to strengthen the resolve of the 31-nation coalition that it leads in Iraq. The U.S. State Department said yesterday that 10 more of the coalition members so far have issued statements that they will not make concessions to hostage takers.

Militants increasingly have turned to hostage taking to coerce nations and companies -- and, in the most recent case, a local Iraqi official -- to cease support for the coalition.

The governor of Al-Anbar Province resigned after militants holding his three sons released them in Al-Fallujah. The militants distributed a videotape on 5 August showing Abdul Karim Berges announcing his resignation and apologizing for opposing Iraqi resistance fighters.

"I am Abd al-Karim Barjas, governor of Al-Anbar. I declare before God and you my repentance of any action I did against the mujahedin, or any act in cooperation with the infidel, the Americans, and I announce my resignation of my post," he said.

The United States proclaimed this week that it will not make concessions to hostage-takers. It was followed by Bulgaria. Yesterday's announcement said that Britain, Estonia, Slovakia, Singapore, New Zealand, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Denmark, Australia, and Albania now have issued such statements.

The United States is having less success with efforts to recruit a multinational security force to guard UN staff in Iraq. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said this week that no nation yet has made a firm offer to join such a force. U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Danforth said on 5 August that the United States, Britain, and members of the existing international force will have to supply the security contingent if other countries fail to join.