Iraq: April The Deadliest Month

Iraq night attack CBS/EARLY SHOW

U.S. warplanes and helicopter gunships firing heavy machine-guns, rockets and cannons hammered gunmen as a truce in besieged Fallujah was strained by increasingly intense battles.

With more troops killed, April became the deadliest month for American forces since they set foot in Iraq.

Elsewhere, a 2,500-strong U.S. force massed on the outskirts of the Shiite holy Najaf for a showdown with a radical cleric, raising fears of a U.S. attack on the city that would outrage the nation's relatively pro-U.S. Shiite majority.

An envoy for the cleric said Muqtada al-Sadr has asked him to convey a set of proposals to U.S. officials, according to CBS News Reporter Lisa Barron.

With the announcement of the deaths of four more Marines, at least 87 troops have been reported killed in action in less than two weeks. Previously, November had seen the most deaths, 82. Roughly 680 U.S. troops have died in Iraq.

Some 880 Iraqis have been killed this month. Among those are more than 600 Iraqis — mostly civilians — killed in Fallujah, according to the city hospital's director.

In other developments:

  • A rocket hit the Sheraton Hotel in central Baghdad on Wednesday, where foreign contractors and journalists are staying, breaking glass but causing no casualties. A second rocket failed to fire and remained lying in the street outside.

  • The security situation must improve "considerably" before Iraqi elections can be held, a United Nations envoy said. But Lakhdar Brahimi says he's "confident" an interim government can be set up to take over from the U.S. on June 30th.

  • President Bush says more American troops may be heading for Iraq with authority to use decisive force in a mission that "may become more difficult before it is finished." Mr. Bush repeated his resolve to see that the June 30 date for handing over power to Iraqis is met.

  • The FBI, U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi security forces were working together to free several foreign hostages. Among those reported missing: four Italian security guards, two U.S. soldiers and seven employees of a U.S. contractor, including truck driver Thomas Hamill.

  • The State Department confirmed that four bodies have been found in Iraq. CBS News has confirmed that the bodies are those of three American civilians and one soldier.

  • A French television journalist taken hostage in Iraq has been freed.

  • Insurgents on Wednesday offered the Iraqi equivalent of $7,000 for anyone who kills Mouwafak al-Rubaie, the Iraqi national security adviser, after he called for Fallujah's residents to handover militants to the United States.

  • Australian Prime Minister John Howard has rejected yet another call for an independent inquiry into Australia's spy agencies, despite mounting pressure on his government over the handling of prewar intelligence on Iraq, a magazine reported.

  • Japan and Australia pledged to keep troops in Iraq, and Pakistan said it was weighing whether to send a force. The Philippines is considering a pullout and Russia will begin evacuating specialists this week.

  • Camp Pendleton in California says two Marines are facing a court-martial in the treatment of an Iraqi prisoner who died in custody last year in Iraq.

    A U.S. Cobra attack helicopter fired rockets and heavy machine-guns before dawn Wednesday at gunmen gathered on the northern edge of the city of Fallujah. Rocket-propelled grenades arched up from the ground toward the helicopter and a second gunship providing support, but none apparently hit the gunships.

    Early Wednesday, A-130 gunships pounded a row of buildings from which Marines say ambushes have repeatedly been launched in a residential area of the city.

    A day earlier, Marines came under two heavy ambushes, the best coordinated and largest guerrilla operations in days, said Capt. James Edge. Two Marines were killed Tuesday and two Monday, the military announced.

    A force of 20 insurgents attacked a Marine position in a residential neighborhood, then damaged an armored vehicle that came to support it, Edge said.

    A fierce battle followed to extract the vehicle as F-15s overhead fired on gunmen. Early Wednesday, A-130 gunships fired on a row of buildings in the area from which ambushes have repeatedly been launched, Edge said.

    Outside the city, an MH-53 Pave Low helicopter — used to ferry special operations soldiers and large enough to carry 38 troops plus a crew of six — was hit by ground fire early Tuesday. A Marine team that came to secure it was ambushed and suffered casualties.

    The Marines called a halt to offensive operations on Friday to allow negotiations between U.S.-allied Iraqis and Fallujah representatives in an attempt to ease the violence. Gunmen in the city called a cease-fire Sunday. But Marines have been responding to guerrilla fire — and striking gunmen who appear about to attack.

    In the south, Iraqi politicians and ayatollahs tried to negotiate a solution to avert a U.S. attack on the city of Najaf, home to one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines.

    A vehemently anti-U.S. cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, was holed up in his office in Najaf, shielded not only by gunmen but by the presence of the city's main shrine only yards away. He vowed to continue what he called "a popular revolution" to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

    U.S. commanders vowed to kill or capture al-Sadr, though officials suggested they would give negotiations a chance.

    "The target is not Najaf. The target is Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia," said Brig. Mark Kimmitt, deputy head of U.S. military operations in Iraq. "We will hunt him down and destroy him. We would prefer it not in Najaf or Karbala. We have very great respect for the shrines, for the Shiites."
    • Joel Roberts

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