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Iraq: U.S. Troop Level Climbs

U.S. troops clashed Monday with Sunni insurgents west of the capital and gunmen assassinated Baghdad's deputy governor as fresh American soldiers arrived in the capital — a move that will push U.S. military strength in Iraq to its highest level since the summer of 2003.

An Iraqi freelance television cameraman who provided material to Associated Press Television News and others was killed Monday while filming skirmishes between U.S. Marines and Iraqi insurgents in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad.

American artillery Monday pounded suspected insurgent positions in Fallujah, witnesses said. U.S. forces are gearing up for an offensive in Fallujah and other Sunni strongholds if Iraqi mediation fails to win agreement to hand over foreign Arab fighters and other militants.

In other developments:

  • Several explosions were heard Monday in Baghdad. The blasts seemed to come from the northern part of the capital. There was no immediate explanation for the cause of the explosions. The U.S. military had no immediate comment.
  • One U.S. Marine was killed and four others wounded Sunday when a bomb exploded in Ramadi, one of the leading insurgent strongholds. There were no other details available. As of Sunday, at least 1,120 members of the U.S. military have died in Iraq.
  • Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, warned on Sunday that efforts to resolve the standoff in Fallujah peacefully have entered their "final phase" and that his patience is running short before launching "a military solution" to Sunni insurgents' hold over the city.
  • But Iraq's Interim President Ghazi al-Yawer was quoted as saying that a military assault is the wrong way to end the insurgency in Fallujah. Sunni clerics have threatened to call for a nationwide civil disobedience campaign and to boycott national elections in January if the Americans attack Fallujah.
  • Amid questions over whether U.S. forces failed to secure an Iraqi arms depot where some 377 tons of high explosives have gone missing, U.N. inspectors tell The New York Times that a second site — thought to have held old chemical weapons — was also looted.
  • In the city of Tikrit in Iraq's Sunni Triangle, a rocket slammed into the Sunubar Hotel late Sunday, killing 15 Iraqis and wounding eight others, hospital officials said.
  • The previously unheard of militant group called the Jihad Martyr's Companies in Iraq claimed responsibility for Saturday's car bombing outside the Baghdad offices of Al-Arabiya TV that killed seven people. The claim couldn't be immediately verified.
  • The U.S. military is increasingly turning to attack helicopters to battle guerrillas in Iraq, using tactics closer to those from Vietnam than the Gulf war. The Army is also pushing its fleets of transport helicopters as hard as it can, ferrying U.S. troops and Iraqi leaders by air, rather than letting them drive the country's ambush-prone roads.

    "When we fly, soldiers don't die," said Col. Jim McConville, who commands the 1st Cavalry Division's aviation brigade. "We're basically flying as much as we can. And we can't fly them enough."

    U.S. and Iraqi officials hope to curb the insurgency in time for national elections by the end of January. Voter registration for the January balloting began Monday.

    In order to provide enough security for the voting, Army units slated to depart are being held back until after the election. The delays in departures and the arrival of new units will push the total U.S. military presence in Iraq to around 142,000.

    At Camp Victory North, the sprawling headquarters of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, the mess hall and housing trailers were brimming to capacity with the arrival of the 3,700-member Louisiana-based 256th Enhanced Separate Brigade, a National Guard unit that has been rolling into the Iraqi capital the past few days.

    The arrival of the 256th was supposed to have been timed with the departure of the 1st Cavalry's 2nd Brigade, which was scheduled to prepare to return to Fort Hood, Texas, in November. But the Pentagon delayed the 2nd Brigade's departure by two months, military officials said.

    In a speech that seemed aimed at preparing the Iraqi public for an onslaught, Allawi warned of civilian casualties, saying that if he orders an assault, it would be with a "heavy heart," because "there will be some loss of innocent lives."

    "But I owe, owe it to the Iraqi people to defend them from the violence and the terrorists and insurgents," he said.

    U.S. officials say the final order for an all-out attack on Fallujah will come from Allawi. Commanders have estimated that up to 5,000 Islamic militants, Saddam Hussein loyalists and common criminals are holed up there.

    The rumble of strong but distant explosions echoed through central Baghdad throughout the day Monday and the roar of U.S. jets could be heard in the overcast skies.

    The deputy governor of Baghdad province, Hatim Kamil, was killed when gunmen opened fire on his car in the southern Doura neighborhood, Iraqi authorities said. Two of his bodyguards were also wounded in the attack, officials said.

    Insurgents have killed dozens of Iraqi politicians and government workers in recent months in a bid to destabilize the country's reconstruction.

    Four mortar rounds fell just outside of Camp Zulu, a base near Suwariyah, on Sunday night, prompting camp security to return fire.

    Poland commands a security force of about 6,000 troops, including 2,400 Poles, from 15 countries in central Iraq.

    Also, a camp housing Japanese troops in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah was hit by a shell late Sunday and may have suffered some damage, according to Japan's NHK public broadcaster, citing government sources. The Shiite area has been relatively quiet in the past.

    Heavy clashes between U.S. forces and insurgent continued Monday in Ramadi, located about 70 miles west of Baghdad. One woman was killed and her two children injured during the fighting, hospital officials said.

    Freelance television cameraman Diaa Najm, in his early 40s, was fatally shot while filming the Monday clashes. Najm was believed to be the 24th journalist killed in Iraq this year.

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