In Iraq, U.S.-led coalition forces continue battles to put down a Shiite uprising that has spread to at least a half dozen cities, and a number of foreigners have been kidnapped by insurgents.

Gunfire echoes across Fallujah, scene of several days of urban combat intended to pacify the Sunni stronghold and hunt down those responsible for last week's death of four American contractors. Marines fought again Thursday around a Fallujah mosque compound. American military commanders say the compound became a legitimate target, after insurgents started using it to fire on U.S. troops.

Scores of people have been reported killed in the Fallujah unrest. Another U.S. Marine was also reported killed in nearby Ramadi, where 12 other Marines died Tuesday.

U.S. Army General Ricardo Sanchez says there now appear to be links between the unrest in the Sunni triangle and the Shiite rebellion that has brought battles with coalition forces to at least a half dozen cities across Iraq. He said at least two southern towns, Kut and Najaf, are now at least partly in the hands of Shiite militias, led by rebel cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

"In the center and southern regions of Iraq, coalition and Iraqi security forces have commenced operation Resolute Sword to destroy the militia forces of Moktda al-Sadr," he added.

Meanwhile, 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. The South Korean government says at least seven members of a church group were also abducted. South Korean TV reports they were later released.

The security situation in Iraq may have claimed its first political casualty. In Baghdad, Iraq's interior minister has resigned at the request of U.S. administrator Paul Bremer. Although his job puts him in charge of Iraq's internal security, the resignation was explained as being part of an effort to maintain a balance between Shiites and Sunnis on Iraq's U.S.-installed governing council.

Amid increasing concern in Washington over the Bush administration's pledge to hand sovereignty back to Iraqis on June 30, the Pentagon is suggesting it may now delay the departure of as many as 25,000 American troops, who had been set to rotate out.