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Heavy clashes in Ramadi as US troop buildup begins
Updated: 2004-11-02 15:30

U.S. forces battled rebels in Ramadi and pounded Falluja on Monday, but there was no sign that an all-out American-led offensive to retake the insurgent-held cities had begun on the eve of the U.S. presidential election.

Kidnappers armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades seized an American, a Nepali and two Arabs from their Saudi company's office in Baghdad, the Interior Ministry said.

A spokesman said the attackers killed a guard when they stormed the company villa in the affluent Mansour district.

The U.S. military said it had begun to increase its troop strength in Iraq ahead of nationwide elections due in January.

"The Second Brigade Combat Team has been informed that its departure has been delayed for 30 to 60 days to provide a secure environment for this election," a military spokesman said.

While the 1st Cavalry's Second Brigade will stay longer than planned, new troops have begun arriving, he said. The United States already has about 138,000 troops in Iraq.

Three people were killed in the Ramadi fighting, including an Iraqi cameraman working for Reuters, apparently killed by a sniper after fierce clashes had died down.

Dhia Najim was near his house in the Sunni Muslim city's Andalus district when he was shot in the back of the neck. A video taken from a nearby building shows him appearing from behind a wall when a single shot cracks out and he falls dead.

Footage he took earlier shows U.S. Humvees racing across a junction and flashes from gunfire and explosions, but there was no sound of fighting on the tape recording his death.

Najim's colleagues and family said they believed he had been shot by a U.S. sniper. U.S. Marine snipers are posted in Ramadi. There was no immediate response from the U.S. military to questions about the incident from Reuters.

Falluja air strikes

U.S. forces hit the eastern part of the Sunni Muslim city of Falluja with on-off artillery barrages through the day and air strikes in the evening, but there were no reports of casualties.

The Marines are preparing to attack Ramadi and Falluja in a drive to pacify Iraq before the Iraqi national assembly polls.

It is not clear if the assault will begin before Tuesday's American presidential poll. Iraq has been a divisive campaign theme, President Bush defending the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein and his handling of its aftermath against fierce criticism from Democratic challenger John Kerry.

Iraqi President Ghazi Yawar criticized the planned offensive in remarks published in the Kuwaiti daily al-Qabas.

"The coalition's handling of this crisis is wrong. It's like someone who fired bullets at his horse's head just because a fly landed on it; the horse died and the fly went away," Yawar said.

"What's needed is that the coalition forces continue dialogue so that the Iraqi armed forces will come, which will prompt those on the sidelines not to join the rebels ..."

Gunmen assassinated the deputy governor of Baghdad, Hatem Karim, and wounded two of his bodyguards in a drive-by shooting in the southern Dora district of the capital.

The Islamic militant group Army of Ansar al-Sunna claimed responsibility for the killing in a statement on its Web site.

Rebels have assassinated many officials seen as cooperating with U.S.-led forces in Iraq, while revenge killings against former Saddam loyalists are also common.

Gunmen killed retired Republican Guard Lieutenant-Colonel Athir al-Khazraji and a passerby in Baquba, northeast of Baghdad. A morgue official there said he had also received the body of an Iraqi contractor working for U.S. forces.

A loud explosion was heard in central Baghdad on Monday night, but there no reports of damage or casualties.

The government says former Saddam loyalists and militants led by al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi operate in Falluja and Ramadi, which have long been hotbeds of anti-U.S. resistance.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said on Sunday the government, which has demanded that Falluja people hand over Zarqawi's men, was losing patience and would soon "free this town from the grip of terrorists who came from abroad."

The Ramadi clashes broke out in the east of the city around 7 a.m. (2300 GMT). Black smoke rose from buildings as gunmen fired grenades and mortar rounds amid heavy U.S. return fire.

Families began to flee their homes as fighting intensified and witnesses said they saw a U.S. military vehicle ablaze.

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