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US, Iraqi Forces Advance in Fallujah

The U.S. and Iraqi offensive on the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah progressed rapidly on Wednesday, with U.S. military officials announcing they are in control of 70 percent of the city. But in Baghdad, a previously unknown militant group kidnapped members of Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's family and is threatening to kill them unless the attack on Fallujah stops within 48 hours.

According to senior U.S. military officers, several areas of resistance remain in Fallujah, but they expect to have control of the city by Friday. Troops advancing through the city faced gunfire from insurgents hiding in mosques and other buildings, as well as home-made explosive devices placed on streets and in alleyways.

In an interview on Arab satellite channel Al Arabiya on Wednesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said he was doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties during the offensive.

Mr. Allawi said he has given instructions to military commanders to take all care to cause no harm to civilians. He accused insurgents in Fallujah and Ramadi of using mosques, schools and hospitals as depots for arms and explosives.

Meanwhile, a previously unknown group has threatened in an Internet statement to kill three of Prime Minister Allawi's relatives if he does not halt the assault on Fallujah and free all Iraqi prisoners within 48 hours. The kidnappers reportedly abducted Mr. Allawi's cousin, Ghazi Allawi, as well as the man's wife and daughter-in-law, from their Baghdad home on Tuesday.

The prime minister's office confirmed the kidnapping, but issued a statement saying "This act will not bend the will of the government to fight terrorism."

The assault on Fallujah is aimed at re-gaining control of the area from militants and foreign fighters believed to be responsible for much of the violence in Iraq. Officials say they need to restore order so elections can be held in January, as promised. Iraq's main Sunni political party has quit the government to protest the offensive.

Elsewhere in Iraq on Wednesday, gunmen attacked U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. And roadside bombs north of Baghdad killed six Iraqi troops and one American soldier