Falluja cease-fire lets civilians flee

Posted in Iraq | 13-Apr-04 | Author: Christine Hauser and Kirk Semp| Source: The New York Times

Talks under way on ending rebellion

BAGHDAD - A fragile cease-fire took effect in the besieged city of Falluja Sunday, allowing residents to flee and halting a week of intense fighting there between insurgents and American-led forces.

There were also reports that as many as nine foreigners taken hostage by insurgents in Iraq in the last week had been freed. U.S. officials said they had sought the truce at the request of the Iraqi Governing Council, which sent emissaries into the embattled city to negotiate with insurgents.

‘‘I understand the cease-fire for now is holding, and we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to get some productive talks going,’’ said L. Paul Bremer 3rd, the top American official in Iraq. The talks to try to end the fighting will continue Monday and an informal cease-fire will be extended overnight, Reuters quoted a negotiator as saying Sunday.

Hashim al-Hassani, the deputy to a member in Iraq’s Governing Council, said the shaky truce would be extended for another 12 hours until Monday morning, when talks would resume.

Hundreds of Iraqis and more than 50 Americans and other foreign troops have been killed in the last week in clashes pitting coalition forces against Sunnis in the volatile region west of Baghdad and Shiite militia members in the center and south of the country.

The fighting is the most extensive combat for American troops since last May, when President George W. Bush declared the end of major military operations in Iraq.

In western Baghdad on Sunday, guerrillas shot down an American Apache attack helicopter, killing its two crew members. A quick-reaction team was mobilized to retrieve the crew members’ bodies, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, a military spokesman, told a news briefing.

At least one flare-up in Falluja on Sunday interrupted the cease-fire in that city, where most of the American and Iraqi casualties in the past week have occurred.

News agencies reported that a sniper had opened fire on an American patrol, wounding two marines. In the ensuing gun battle, at least one insurgent was killed.

Otherwise, the truce appeared to be holding. A guerrilla commander in Falluja’s Jolan neighborhood told Al Jazeera satellite television network that his fighters would abide by the truce.

‘‘I have ordered my fighters to adhere to the cease-fire,’’ said the commander, who identified himself by the nom de guerre Abu Muaz. ‘‘But I warn everyone, if the enemy breaks the cease-fire, we will respond.’’

The sustained rebellion in Falluja began last Monday, when American troops raided the city, a center of opposition to the American-led occupation, five days after an Iraqi mob killed four civilian security contractors as they drove through the city, and mutilated their corpses. A day earlier, armed followers of a 31-year-old radical Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, began an uprising that spread throughout central and southern Iraq.

Bremer said the Americans had not imposed any terms on the cease-fire but would be sending a Governing Council delegation back to Falluja ‘‘to find out how we can proceed from here.’’

American forces have used attack helicopters, tanks and warplanes against militants firing rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons in the city, which has a population of about 200,000. Hundreds of American reinforcements have moved into place on Falluja’s outskirts, joining about 1,300 marines and Iraqi security forces already engaged in the operation.

But American officials have had to cope with reluctance among some Iraqi security forces to participate in the Falluja offensive. A battalion of the new Iraqi Army refused to join the fighting in Falluja last week because they said they had not signed up to fight their countrymen.

Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of the coalition forces in Iraq, acknowledged Sunday that the battalion’s refusal, first reported by The Washington Post, ‘‘did, in fact, uncover some significant challenges’’ in the Iraqi security forces.

Sanchez said, ‘‘We knew that there were going to be some risks that we were taking by standing up security forces quickly, and we also know that it’s going to take us a while to stand up reliable forces that can accept responsibility for both the internal and the external security of the country.’’

In the heated atmosphere, insurgents have begun taking foreigners hostage, trying to undercut support for the coalition in their home countries.

The hostages complicate matters for the coalition because the hostage takers can be small, disconnected groups without lines of authority among them. One American held since Friday will be executed shortly if the United States does not lift its siege of Falluja, his captors said.

The American, identified as Thomas Hamill, was seen on television in the back seat of a car, next to a masked gunman. Hamill, identified in subsequent news reports as a 43-year-old Mississippi truck driver and an employee of Halliburton Corp., gave his name and said he had been captured in an attack on a convoy.

Two American soldiers and an unknown number of civilian contractors were also reported missing after their convoy was attacked at midday Friday. German officials said two German security workers had disappeared and might have been killed driving from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad.

Eight other foreigners — three Pakistanis, two Turks, an Indian, a Nepali and a Filipino — were released Sunday, Reuters reported, citing a broadcast on Al Jazeera.

A British civilian contractor, Gary Teeley, who had been kidnapped in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, was also released, the British Foreign Office said.

A senior official in the coalition forces said of Teeley, ‘‘He is in the hands of American and Italian forces in Nasiriyah as we speak. We’ll be making sure that he is flown out of the country and back to Britain as soon as possible.’’

Three Japanese held hostage since Thursday were first thought to be close to being freed Sunday after the Muslim Clerics Association called for their release. But Al Jazeera on Sunday quoted an Iraqi described as an intermediary who said the kidnappers were ‘‘giving the Japanese government a 24-hour ultimatum, not open to extension,’’ to withdraw its troops from Iraq; otherwise ‘‘they will execute a first hostage.’’

In Kuwait, an associate of Iraq’s leading Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, denounced the kidnapping of the Japanese, Reuters reported. The associate, Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Mohri, also denounced what he called the chaos in Iraq caused by the followers of Sadr. His remarks, from Friday Prayers, were carried in Kuwait’s newspapers on Saturday.

‘‘We condemn the acts of sabotage, chaos and takeover of public property by a group that unfortunately is part of one of Iraq’s biggest and best-known families,’’ he said.

Another group of armed Iraqi insurgents, their faces masked, claimed on Saturday to be holding 30 foreigners hostage and threatened to kill them unless the United States halted its offensive in Falluja.

In a film that was shown repeatedly on Arabic television, a masked man representing the group said: ‘‘We have Japanese, Bulgarian, Israeli, American, Spanish and Korean hostages. Their numbers are 30.’’ He added, ‘‘If America doesn’t lift its blockade of Falluja, their heads will be cut off.’’

The videotape did not show any hostages, however, and it was not possible to confirm that such a group was being held. Bulgaria said its soldiers were accounted for.