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US: Shiite Fighters Take Partial Control of At Least 2 Iraqi Cities - 2004-04-08

A U.S. military commander in Iraq says Shiite rebels have taken partial control of at least two cities as coalition forces continue battles to put down Shiite and Sunni rebellions across the country. This Friday marks the first anniversary of the ouster of Saddam Hussein and comes after nearly a week of some of the worst fighting since the fall of Baghdad a year ago.

Gunfire echoes across Fallujah as Sunni rebels fire on U.S. Marines. The city has been the scene of several days of combat intended to pacify the Sunni stronghold and hunt down those responsible for the deaths last week of four American contractors.

Marines fought again Thursday around a Fallujah mosque. American military commanders say the mosque became a legitimate target after insurgents started using it to fire on U.S. forces. At least 35 coalition troops and several hundred Iraqis have been reported killed in nearly a week of unrest around the country.

For much of the past year, the on-going war in Iraq has been largely a battle against Sunnis and diehard Baathist supporters of Saddam Hussein. But with the approach of Friday's one year anniversary of the fall of the Iraqi leader, coalition forces now find themselves fighting a new front -- this one against a rebellion by majority Shiites, long oppressed under Saddam's rule.

Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, wanted for the murder of a rival religious figure a year ago, has urged his followers to rise up against the U.S. led occupation, and in a half dozen towns and cities across Iraq, they have.

U.S. Army General Ricardo Sanchez says at least two southern towns, Kut and Najaf, are now in the hands of militia loyal to the cleric. "We will continue the attacks until Sadr's influence is eliminated and Sadr's militia is no longer a threat to Iraq and its citizens.

The fighting has also brought a new threat to foreigners.

The Arab television network al-Jazeera broadcast a video showing heavily armed gunmen threatening to kill several blindfolded Japanese hostages if Japan does not pull its troops out of Iraq, a demand the Japanese government has rejected. Reports say rebels have also abducted two Arab men with Israeli identity cards. But at least seven South Korean church pastors who were also taken hostage have now been released unharmed.

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell brushed aside increasing comparisons being made between Iraq and the Vietnam war a generation ago, telling a Senate hearing the United States is not getting bogged down in a military quagmire in the Middle East.

"It is not a swamp that is going to devour us. It is a problem that is solvable and manageable and we need to stay the course and not contaminate the good work we are doing by comparisons to Vietnam," he said.

Mr. Powell says no decisions have been made yet on who will inherit power in Iraq after June 30, when the U.S. led coalition plans to hand sovereignty back to the Iraqi people. That lack of decision drew criticism from Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

"The president needs to explain to the American people, who are we turning power over to on the 30th of June? What will we be protecting on the 30th of June?," he said.

With the approach of that date, the Pentagon is now suggesting the deteriorating security situation may delay the departure of as many as 25,000 American troops who had been set to rotate out of the country.