"OUR RESOLVE IS FIRM; OUR RESOLVE IS UNSHAKABLE AND WE WILL PREVAIL" –WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN SCOTT MCCLELLAN
FALLUJA (Reuters)–US-led forces are battling Sunni Muslim guerrillas and a spreading Shi’ite uprising–as Iraqi anger was inflamed by a blast in the grounds of a mosque that witnesses say killed 25 people.
In the last three days 35 American and allied soldiers and at least 200 Iraqis have been killed in some of the heaviest fighting since the fall of Saddam Hussein nearly a year ago.
The spiraling two-front war–with new flashpoints flaring across the country as backers of radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr take up arms–is calling into question US plans to transfer sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30.
US President George W. Bush–campaigning for re-election in November with opinion polls showing plunging support over Iraq–held phone talks with close ally Prime Minister Tony Blair–but officials dismissed any suggestion of a crisis.
But some countries with troops in Iraq signaled the situation was growing serious. Ukrainian troops pulled out of the eastern city of Kut after clashes and regrouped at a base camp. Japan said its troops would suspend reconstruction work in Samawa–in the south–because of security concerns.
Battles raged between US Marines and guerrillas in the Sunni towns of Falluja and Ramadi west of Baghdad.
NEW US "CASUALTIES"
A US military spokesman’said there were five Marine "casualties" in Falluja on Wednesday–but it was not clear if any had been killed.
In Falluja–witnesses said the office of a Muslim organization in the grounds of a mosque was hit by a rocket. Local residents said at least 25 people were killed.
A US official at the Pentagon said a bomb had been dropped but "did not hit the mosque–that was made very clear to us".
In a small alleyway in the back streets of Ramadi–a dozen Iraqis crouched on the floor of a house–sheltering from gunfire as Marines and masked insurgents fought outside.
In a room close by–women and children were crying.
Mosques broadcast calls for a holy war against US troops–blasts echoed across the town and black smoke rose from a building blocks away.
Twelve Marines were killed on Tuesday in a seven-hour battle in Ramadi–one of the costliest single losses for US forces since the war that toppled Saddam began last March.
A US soldier was killed in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Baghdad on Wednesday–bringing to 443 the number of US troops killed in action in Iraq since last year’s invasion.
Since Sunday–clashes across Iraq have killed 33 US troops–a Ukrainian soldier and a Salvadoran’soldier.
MAJOR US OPERATION
The US military launched a major operation this week to secure Ramadi and Falluja–where four US private security guards were killed last week and their bodies set ablaze and mutilated by a jubilant crowd of Iraqis.
North of Baghdad–a US helicopter landed after being hit by gunfire. The US army said there were no casualties.
Followers of Sadr have fought running battles with US-led forces in the southern cities of Nassiriya–Amara–Kut–and Kerbala.
An aide to Sadr told a news conference some US soldiers had been captured in the fighting.
"Some tribes have captured some occupation forces on the streets," Qays al-Khazali told a news conference in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf.
US military spokesman–Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt–said US-led forces would destroy Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia and that the cleric would be arrested.
"In the central and southern regions of Iraq the coalition and Iraqi security forces are conducting operations to destroy the Mehdi Army," he said.
The upsurge in violence has prompted critics of Bush to suggest US forces face a Vietnam-style quagmire.
Bulgaria summoned ambassadors of the United States–Britain–Spain and Poland to the foreign ministry on Wednesday asking for back-up for 450 Bulgarian soldiers stationed in Kerbala.
The base has come under attack several times by Shi’ite militiamen–and a Bulgarian civilian truck driver was killed in an attack on a convoy in southern Iraq on Tuesday.
Sadr has appealed to all Iraqis–whatever their religion–to help expel the US-led occupying forces.
"This insurrection shows that the Iraqi people are not satisfied with the occupation and they will not accept oppression," he said in a statement on Tuesday.
Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on Wednesday condemned the way US-led forces were tackling the uprising and called for calm on all sides and an end to violence.
Bush has vowed the campaign by Sadr’s supporters would not derail Washington’s plans.
"We will pass sovereignty on June 30," he told a rally in Arkansas on Tuesday. "We’re not going to be intimidated by thugs and assassins."
A US opinion poll on Monday showed support for Bush’s handling of Iraq at a new low of 40 percent–with 44 percent wanting US troops withdrawn.