US forces battled insurgents around the rebel stronghold of Fallujah today after two American soldiers died as their helicopters crashed south of Baghdad.
Fierce clashes between troops and insurgents broke out on a road east of Fallujah and in the southern part of the city, witnesses said.
The road, which leads to Baghdad, has been completely blocked. Residents reported fresh aerial and artillery attacks as explosions boomed across the city.
Plumes of smoke were seen rising from the eastern neighbourhood of Askari and southern area of Shuhada as families began to flee the area, residents reported. They said a Humvee was seen burning in the eastern edge of the city.
Fallujah clerics today repeated their offer to return to the negotiating table if the US stopped its bombing, while blaming the Iraqi government for the violence.
Prime Minister Ayad Allawi had threatened military action if Fallujah did not turn over terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose group killed British hostage Ken Bigley.
“We are still ready to go back to the talks and open new channels of dialogue,” said negotiator Abdul Hamid Jadou.
But he said Allawi is “responsible for each drop of blood being spilled in Fallujah. This government sided with the Americans in bombing the innocent people who are fasting (on) Ramadan.”
Today’s attacks followed an overnight strike by US jets, blasting what the American command said was a checkpoint operated by the feared Tawhid and Jihad terror movement of Jordanian-born extremist al-Zarqawi. Three people were killed, according to the Fallujah hospital.
On Saturday, five churches in Baghdad were firebombed, causing no casualties but putting the Christian community on edge as violence flared while Iraqi Muslims began marking the holy month of Ramadan.
The military action in Fallujah came despite an offer by community leaders there to resume peace talks with the government if US forces stop their attacks on the city and free their chief negotiator.
Fallujah hospital officials also said US artillery shells fell on a house in Halabsa village, 10 miles south west of the city, killing a three-year-old girl and injuring four family members.
The Army OH-58 helicopters went down at about 8.30pm in south-western Baghdad, the 1st Cavalry Division said. The division said the cause of the crashes had not been determined.
“There are investigators on the site and they’ll go through it until they ascertain the cause of the crash. It could be days,” said spokesman Lt Col James Hutton.
Meanwhile, the US military extended the deadline from Friday to Sunday for Shiite militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to turn in their weapons for cash in the Baghdad district of Sadr City.
Once the handover is complete, the US military will verify that no major weapons caches remain and Iraqi forces will assume responsibility for security in Sadr City. The Americans hope the deal will enable them to focus on the more dangerous Sunni Muslim insurgency.