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Agreement Reached to Ease Fighting in Fallujah, Iraq - 2004-04-19

In Iraq, a U.S. military commander said an agreement has been reached with leaders in the city of Fallujah that could ease a two week standoff between Sunni militants and 1,200 American Marines encircling the city.

U.S. Marines have kept Fallujah sealed off for two weeks as they engage in some of the heaviest fighting in Iraq of the past year, aimed at restoring order to the city where four American contractors were ambushed last month.

The battles have kept civilians largely confined to their homes. The toll that the clampdown has taken on the city was in evidence Monday when this Iraqi family, escorted by an American soldier and translator, emerged from their home desperate for something to eat. "We are starving. There is no food," they said.

Now, after days of negotiations, U.S. General Mark Kimmitt said Marines have agreed to hold their fire provided anti-coalition gunmen hand over their heavy weapons and agree to end two weeks of intensive street battles that have reportedly claimed the lives of hundreds of Iraqis and nearly 40 U.S. Marines. "We are trying to use peaceful negotiations to try to bring the situation in Fallujah to an end and it would appear by the agreed statement made today that there is an agreed political track," he said.

However, there has been no apparent change in the on-going standoff between U.S. forces and Shiite rebels holding out in the holy city of Najaf, where militiamen armed with heavy weapons have the run of the streets. U.S. military commanders have repeatedly warned that if gunmen loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr do not end their rebellion, coalition forces will move in with force and restore order.

It's in the Najaf area of south-central Iraq where Spain is about to pull its 1300 troops out of the country, as the new government in Madrid promised to do during last month's elections. In a telephone call with Spain's new prime minister Monday, President Bush expressed regret over the decision. The U.S. military says the departure of the Spanish forces will not leave a power vacuum, but so far no country has stepped in with a sizable offer to replace them.