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US strikes Fallujah, killing many
Updated: 2004-10-08 14:00

US warplanes attacked Iraqi rebel-held city of Fallujah on early Friday, killing at least eight people, hospital sources said, as coalition forces pressed their assault on insurgents after rockets hit a Baghdad hotel used by foreign journalists and contractors.

Amid the crackdown, militiamen loyal to a radical Shiite Muslim cleric offered to surrender heavy and medium weapons in return for the release of prisoners and a role in Iraq’s political process.

The raid targeted a northern district of the city at 1:30 am (2230 GMT Thursday.

US warplanes pound Fallujah almost daily in raids targeting supporters of Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the most wanted man in Iraq whose Tawhid wal Jihad (Unity and Holy War) group is blamed for a string of deadly attacks and beheadings of hostages.

Earlier, military officials said US and Iraqi troops have captured nearly 60 suspected insurgents in the first three days of a joint assault on Sunni Muslim rebel strongholds south of Baghdad.

Hundreds of US and Iraqi forces combed the dangerous belt of farming towns -- Mahmudiyah, Latifiyah and Iskandariyah -- known as the triangle of death, where insurgents have killed and kidnapped foreigners and locals for months.

Four marines, three Iraqi national guardsmen and three civilians have been wounded in the fighting so far.

Meanwhile, rockets hit the Sheraton Hotel, followed by gunfire, but there were no immediate reports of any casualties, officials and witnesses said.

“Two rockets did hit the hotel. It looks like they may have been fired from close range,” US military spokesman Major Philip Smith said.

A guest at the heavily fortified hotel said: “I was working at my computer when I heard loud explosions followed by some gunfire.”

Fire was seen blazing from the Sheraton after the attack at about 7:00 pm (1600 GMT), although the guest said the situation calmed later.

Elsewhere, a US soldier was killed and his interpreter wounded in a roadside bomb attack Thursday near the northern oil refinery town of Baiji, after another soldier was killed and two wounded late Wednesday in a bomb attack on their convoy near Fallujah, an insurgent enclave west of the capital.

In other violence, an official with US-funded Iraqi television was gunned down in the main northern city of Mosul, police said.

The US-backed government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi maintains that it wants to pursue peaceful avenues to resolve a standoff with rebels in strongholds such as the Shiite Baghdad slum of Sadr City and the Sunni Arab bastion of Fallujah.

The announcement by a spokesman for renegade Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr appeared to be a positive development on that front.

“We are ready to lay down our heavy and medium-sized weapons in return for the release of all those imprisoned from our movement, a commitment that members of our movement will no longer be pursued and the restoration of basic services to areas like Sadr City,” Sheikh Abdul Hadi al-Darraji told AFP.

He said Sadr’s movement was willing to take part in nationwide elections promised for January as long as they were “free of US influence and overseen by international monitors.”

Allawi has pledged that the vote would take place on time despite concerns about the insurgency, which out-gunned by US military might, has resorted to car bombings and hostage-takings to derail the US-backed political process.

The kidnapping crisis refused to disappear, with an Internet statement from a group accused of Al Qaeda links claiming to have snatched a “Kurdish spy”, while the family of a Jordanian hostage struggled to raise a half-million-dollar ransom and Allawi hinted about fresh developments in the case of a British captive.

And a spokesman for UN chief Kofi Annan said Annan’s special envoy to Iraq, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, was back in Baghdad.

Qazi “has returned to Baghdad this week and he’s meeting with a wide spectrum of Iraqi political leaders and actors to see how the United Nations can best help the transition process,” spokesman Fred Eckhard said.

In Baghdad, Qazi met Wednesday with visiting British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, and Thursday with US Ambassador John Negroponte, the spokesman said.

Tapped in July, Qazi made his first visit to Iraq August 13-25 leading a group that was kept very small amid security concerns. He attended the Iraqi National Conference, which began the process leading to January 2005 general elections.

Qazi is the successor of Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in August 2003 along with 21 other people, in an attack on UN offices in Baghdad. The United Nations since has reduced its presence there, Qazi is not based there and the dates of his travel are kept secret.

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