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Death Toll Mounts in Iraq Uprising

One of the U.S. soldiers was killed in Baghdad when rebels attacked a convoy transporting fuel. The other soldier was killed by a roadside bomb at Camp Cook, a U.S. base in northern Baghdad.

The deaths came on the same day American forces declared a “unilateral suspension” of military action in the city of Fallujah after five days of fighting aimed at rooting out militants. During the break, Sunni clerics and American military leaders were to meet for unprecedented talks with insurgents.

The cessation of violence also allowed women and children to leave the city, 35 miles west of Baghdad. Groups also planned to use the period to ship in needed humanitarian aid and residents told reporters they would use the time to bury their dead. Fighting in Fallujah this week has killed at least 280 Iraqis. One hospital official told Reuters the number was closer to 450.

Despite the declared ceasefire, fighting could be heard 90 minutes later, when Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne, commander of the 1st Battalion 5th Marine Regiment said he was given permission to resume the operation.

The U.S. attacks in Fallujah have been a point of debate in Iraq, drawing fire from some supporters of the American occupation.

“These operations were a mass punishment for the people of Fallujah,” Adnan Pachachi, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, told Al-Arabiya TV. “It was not right to punish all the people of Fallujah and we consider these operations by the Americans unacceptable and illegal.”

The military also reported that they had retaken the city of Kut, southeast of Baghdad, two days after Ukrainian soldiers withdrew from the city after coming under heavy attack by Shiite rebels loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr.

The battle for the city was reportedly sporadic, but a U.S. helicopter struck al-Sadr’s office in Kut during the assault, killing two people.

The U.S. forces should be finished with the operation to retake Kut from al-Sadr’s militia by Saturday morning, according to Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt.

“We are fairly comfortable that the town of al-Kut is well on its way to coming back under coalition control,” he said.

The Shiite holy city of Najaf, close to Kut, is still under control of al-Sadr’s militia.

Military officials have said any effort to retake the city would likely not happen this weekend. Hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims are expected in Najaf to mark Al-Arbaeen, commemorating the end of a mourning period for a 7th century martyred saint.

Despite the setbacks his militia faced in the loss of Kut, al-Sadr Friday reiterated his demand that U.S. forces leave Iraq.

“I direct my speech to my enemy [President] Bush and I tell him that if your excuse was that you are fighting Saddam, then this thing is a past and now you are fighting the entire Iraqi people,” al-Sadr said in a sermon delivered by a deputy at the Iman Ali Shrine, the holiest Shiite site.

In Baghdad Friday, a large explosion was heard when a mortar shell hit a concrete shed within a compound near two guarded hotels where Western journalists and civilian contractors stay in Baghdad. No causalities were reported.

The compound is adjacent to Firdos Square, where U.S. forces pulled down a giant statue of Saddam Hussein a year ago Friday. On the same day, a year later, a poster of al-Sadr was put on an unfinished monument at the site. U.S. soldiers tore the poster down.

Since April 4 at least 51 U.S. and allied soldiers have been killed in fighting. According to the Pentagon, at least 455 U.S. troops have been killed since the U.S.-led war began in March 2003.

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