US asks Iran for help in Iraq

An unsteady truce was extended in the flashpoint town of Fallujah on Wednesday despite sporadic clashes and casualties on both sides, as Washington sought Iran’s help to ease the violence in Iraq.

United States President George Bush said he has authorised troops to use “decisive force” to maintain order in Iraq, but insisted the US-led coalition is determined to hand over power to the Iraqis on June 30 as scheduled.

Faced with dogged resistance by Sunni and Shiite Muslim insurgents Washington has sought help from Iran, a country Bush has branded as part of an “axis of evil” alongside North Korea and Iraq’s ousted Saddam Hussein regime.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi said Washington has made a formal request for assistance and Tehran is taking part in mediation efforts.

Tehran’s director for Gulf affairs, Hossein Sadeghi, has gone to Iraq for talks with US-led coalition officials, Iraqi politicians and religious figures, the Irna news agency reported.

“Naturally, there was a request for our help in improving the situation in Iraq and solving the crisis, and we are making efforts in this regard,” Kharazi said after a Cabinet meeting.

Bush said more US forces would be sent to Iraq if needed and called for a new United Nations Security Council resolution to try to convince more nations to contribute contingents to the US-led coalition.

In the beleaguered Sunni bastion of Fallujah west of Baghdad, an Iraqi mediator said both sides had agreed to a 48-hour truce extension from 9am local time on Wednesday to allow the reopening of two hospitals.

“It is mainly meant to allow the reopening of the Fallujah General hospital and the Jordanian hospital, which had been forced to close because of the siege imposed by the marines,” said Fouad Rawi, a senior official of the Iraqi Islamic Party.

But hospital sources in the city said five Iraqis were killed and three others wounded in renewed clashes between US troops and the rebels who exchanged grenade and machine-gun fire in the city.

Earlier on Wednesday a US military aircraft strafed two Fallujah buildings used to fire rocket-propelled grenades on marines the previous day. The marines denied the strikes marked an end to the coalition’s suspension of offensive operations, declared on Friday.

US forces suffered more casualties elsewhere, with four US marines reported killed in attacks over the past 48 hours in the al-Anbar province, which includes Fallujah.

The latest fatalities brought to about 80 the number of US soldiers killed in action in Iraq since April 1, the bloodiest two weeks for the US military since the fall of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein one year ago.

US forces were massing near the Shiite city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, poised to capture radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and eject his banned Mehdi Army.

Local residents were seen stocking up on fuel and food as they braced for an expected assault, although al-Sadr told journalists on Tuesday he was ready for outside mediation to end the standoff peacefully.

Al-Sadr is wanted for the alleged murder of a rival cleric last year, and US commanders have said their mission is to kill or capture the firebrand cleric.

His banned militia forces launched a major uprising in Baghdad as well as central and southern Shiite cities 10 days ago, sparking fears of a broad revolt among Iraq’s Shiite majority.

Foreign nationals were meanwhile urged to flee Iraq as anti-occupation insurgents stepped up a campaign of hostage-taking designed to break the US-led coalition’s resolve.

Russia announced on Wednesday it would begin to evacuate more than 800 workers with Moscow’s contractors in Baghdad, while France said its citizens should leave after a French journalist became the latest kidnap victim.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned that because of the deteriorating security he could not promise a large UN team would be sent back to Iraq.

US television reported that four bodies believed to be those of American contractors missing since an ambush on their fuel convoy west of Baghdad last week had been found in a shallow grave near the site of the attack. Eight Americans, including two US soldiers, are listed as missing from that attack.

Civilian contractor Thomas Hamill was captured in the attack, becoming one of about 40 foreigners from at least 12 countries held by Iraqi militants.

The governments of Italy and Japan have pledged to keep their troops in Iraq despite the kidnapping of their nationals, but the Philippines and New Zealand have said their troop contributions are under review.

Fears grew for three Japanese hostages who have been under an execution threat since Monday afternoon. Japanese officials refused to comment on whether any progress had been made in securing their release.

In the northern city of Mosul, four Iraqi civilians, including two women, were killed and six others wounded on Wednesday when a mortar round fell on a market, police said. — Sapa-AFP

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