Three Japanese Hostages Freed As U.S. Continues to Battle Iraqi Militants
The Japanese civilians were seized a week ago, and their captors had threatened them with death if Tokyo didn’t withdraw its troops from Iraq. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has stood firm in his commitment to the U.S.-led coalition.
The Iranian diplomat killed Thursday was shot near the country’s mission in Baghdad. Iran state television identified him as first secretary Khalil Naimi.
An Iranian delegation has been in Iraq to help mediate between U.S.-led authorities and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers in the holy city Najaf. The New York Times reported that U.S. officials said Britain suggested the Iranian delegation presence in Iraq, but that the United States had agreed to the visit.
Some 2,500 U.S. troops are massed outside Najaf, home to the holiest Shiite site in the world. The U.S. military has vowed to capture or kill al-Sadr, who is holed up in the city.
A U.S. assault into Najaf could enflame Iraq’s Shiite majority and push them closer to al-Sadr, whose militia launched a bloody uprising last week against coalition forces across the south. The move would likely also fan anti-American sentiment in Shiite communities around the world, including Iran.
Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, persuaded al-Sadr to drop defiant demands he had put forward to Iraqi politicians mediating the standoff. Al-Sadr had been demanding U.S. troops withdraw from all Iraqi cities.
The Iranian’s presence does not yet seem to have calmed the situation in Najaf. Al-Sadr’s militiamen appeared to be preparing for a fight, moving into buildings and onto rooftops on the outskirts, Col. Dana J.H. Pittard, head of the 2,500 U.S. troops outside the city, told the Associated Press.
Meanwhile in the besieged city of Fallujah, U.S. warplanes struck guerrillas early Thursday, marking the latest in nightly fighting that erupted after a four-day truce aimed at enabling Iraqi negotiators to end the violence.
Marines and insurgents have been preparing for the possible complete collapse of the cease-fire. Insurgents have been launching increasingly sophisticated attacks on Marine positions at night, Marine commanders told the AP.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said talks on Fallujah, where rebels on March 31 murdered and mutilated four U.S. contractors, could not go on forever.
“I think we have to be prepared … that there may be further military action,” he said.
Rafa Hayad al-Issawi, director of Fallujah’s main hospital, told wire services Monday that he believed more than 600 Iraqis, mainly civilians, had been killed there.
Violence has continued in other parts of Iraq. Two soldiers were killed Wednesday in attacks in Mosul and Samarra, in the north and center of the country, the military said. Eighty-seven U.S. soldiers have been killed in April — making it the deadliest month for Americans in Iraq.