Kidnappers seized 13 foreign hostages and threatened to burn three Japanese captives alive if Tokyo did not withdraw its troops from Iraq as fighting in Fallujah raged today between insurgents and US forces.
Shiite rebels held part or all of three southern cities in the worst violence since Baghdad fell one year ago.
But US-led coalition forces retook control of the southern Iraqi city of Kut today, a military spokeswoman said.
The top US general in Iraq, Army Lieut General Ricardo Sanchez, said hours earlier that US forces would move to break Shiite rebels’ hold over Kut and to wipe out the insurgency throughout the country in “Operation Resolute Sword.”
The rebels also control large swathes of the cities of Kufa and Najaf.
The kidnapping of foreign nationals added a new dimension to the fighting. Fears were growing for British civilian worker Gary Teeley, 37, who disappeared in the southern Iraqi city Nasiriyah on Monday.
Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said the abduction of his nation’s citizens was “cowardly” and he vowed not to withdraw 530 troops doing aid and reconstruction work in the south.
The Arab satellite network Al-Jazeera broadcast images – that were rebroadcast during prime time in Japan – showing two Japanese aid workers and a Japanese journalist wide-eyed and moaning in terror as black-clad men held knives to their throats, shouting God is Great in Arabic.
It was not clear when the three were captured.
Two Arab aid workers from Jerusalem were also abducted in a separate incident, and a Syrian-born Canadian humanitarian aid worker for the International Rescue Committee was taken hostage on Wednesday by a militia in Najaf.
Seven South Korean Christian missionaries were freed by gunmen outside Baghdad after one of the missionaries escaped. The seizure did not appear to sway Korean leaders, though, as officials in Seoul said they stood by plans to send 3,600 troops to Iraq.
Streets in Baghdad were quiet today, the first anniversary of the fall of the city to US-led forces.
Most shops were shut and there was little traffic. An area in the city’s centre around Firdos Square, where a bronze statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down on April 9 last year, was closed to the public.
US soldiers used loudspeakers to warn people in Arabic that if they came into the area and were found to have weapons, they would be shot.
The two-front insurgency – Sunni rebels in the west and Shiite guerrillas in central and southern regions – threatens the country’s already shaky security as the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority prepares to hand sovereignty to an Iraqi government on June 30.
Polish and Bulgarian troops in Karbala battled overnight and today with al-Sadr fighters using machine-guns and mortars, witnesses said. It was not immediately clear if there were any casualties.
US forces pushed ahead with their siege of Fallujah, which went into its fifth day today. Troops have surrounded the city 35 miles west of Baghdad, but opened the blockade for a convoy carrying food and medicine sent by Sunni clerics in Baghdad.
Marines said they had discovered homemade suicide belts in the city and had killed two men wearing such belts. Suicide tactics had not been seen before in the Sunni city.
Troops again battled to seize a mosque that officers said insurgents were using as a fire base.
Marines called in tanks and warplanes to pound the Sunni gunmen.
Heavy fighting also broke out around another Fallujah mosque, al-Khulafa, which witnesses said US forces seized. A marine sniper climbed up the minaret and fired down on gunmen, who shot back with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons, witnesses said.
Yesterday, for the second time in the battle, US forces called in one of their most devastating weapons – an AC-130 gunship capable of withering fire.