A 2,500-strong US force, backed by tanks and artillery, massed on the outskirts of the Iraqi city of Najaf for a showdown with a radical cleric, raising fears of an assault on the holiest Shi'ite city.
In besieged Fallujah, two intense battles killed a US Marine, forced down an American helicopter and severely strained a truce.
Meanwhile, a US State Department official said four bodies had been found in Iraq. The bodies may be those of private contractors missing since an assault on their convoy outside Baghdad amid a wave of kidnappings of at least 22 foreigners.
Early today, the US military said four marines were killed in fighting in western Anbar province. Two were killed “as a result of enemy action” yesterday while the other two were killed a day earlier, it said in a statement.
With the latest killings, April became the deadliest month for the US military since the Iraq war began in March 2003. At least 87 troops have been reported killed in action in less than two weeks. Last November, 82 were killed.
In the south, Iraqi politicians and ayatollahs tried to negotiate a solution to avert a US attack on Najaf, which would outrage the nation’s relatively pro-US Shi'ite majority and could turn what has been a limited revolt by a single militia into an outright Shi'ite rebellion. A military advance could also inflame Shi'ites in neighbouring Iran.
The vehemently anti-US cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, was holed up in his office in Najaf, shielded not only by gunmen but by the presence of the city’s main shrine only yards away. He vowed to continue what he called “a popular revolution” to end the US occupation of Iraq.
“I fear only God. I am ready to sacrifice my blood for this country. But I call on the Iraqi people not to let my killing put an end to their rejection of the (US) occupation,” al-Sadr told Lebanon’s Al Manar television station.
At a news conference last night in Washington, President George Bush said “al-Sadr must answer the charges against him and disband his illegal militia”. He added that “members of the Governing Council are seeking to resolve the situation in the south”.
US commanders vowed to kill or capture al-Sadr, though officials suggested they would give negotiations a chance.
“The target is not Najaf. The target is Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia,” said Brigadier Mark Kimmitt, deputy head of US military operations in Iraq.
“We will hunt him down and destroy him. We would prefer it not in Najaf or Karbala. We have very great respect for the shrines, for the Shi'ites.”
The US military has been fighting on several fronts across Iraq this month - against al-Sadr’s militia in the south, against Sunni insurgents in the central city of Fallujah, as well as increased violence in Baghdad and elsewhere.
In Fallujah, a truce called by both sides since Sunday – three days after the Marines called a unilateral halt – was strained by new fighting. One marine was killed by mortar fire.
Outside the city, an MH-53 Pave Low helicopter – used to ferry special operations soldiers and large enough to carry 38 troops plus a crew of six – was hit by ground fire yesterday. A marine team that came to secure it was ambushed and suffered casualties.
The US State Department confirmed the discovery of four bodies – a possible new development in the kidnappings that began last week. The identities and nationalities of the victims were unknown, said the official, speaking only on condition of anonymity.
US contractor Halliburton said it did not know whether the bodies were those of any of its seven civilian employees missing since their convoy was attacked by gunmen in the Abu Ghraib district west of Baghdad. Two US soldiers are also missing since that clash.
NBC News reported that the four bodies were in a shallow grave between Fallujah and Abu Ghraib.
A French journalist and four Italians working as private guards were also reported abducted yesterday.
The kidnappings have chilled foreign aid, media and contracting agencies working in Iraq. An AP tally shows that 22 were being held, including three Japanese whose captors have threatened to kill them. At least 35 others had been taken hostage and released. Nine Americans, including two soldiers, were missing.
Dan Senor, the spokesman for the US-led administration, said that 40 foreign hostages from 12 countries were being held by Iraqi insurgents. He said the FBI was investigating.