The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East said yesterday that he had requested two more brigades of troops, perhaps as many as 14,000, to help quell some of the worst fighting in Iraq since the U.S.-led occupation began more than a year ago.
Evidence mounted that coalition forces were losing control of the roads in Iraq as another supply convoy was set ablaze and officials announced that nine more Americans were missing.
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said 70 coalition troops and roughly 700 Iraqis had died since April 1. Three Marines were killed near Fallujah and a soldier was killed in Samarra on Sunday, but a cease-fire in embattled Fallujah was generally holding, the military said.
Gen. John Abizaid, the head of U.S. Central Command, which handles operations in the Middle East, declined to say in a teleconference yesterday how many more troops would be needed in Iraq or how long they would stay. He said he was requesting "a strong, mobile combat-arms capability" of "two brigades' worth of combat power, if not more."
A mechanized combat brigade generally numbers anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 troops.
It was not clear whether the two additional brigades would come from fresh units in the United States or from forces in Iraq and Kuwait but scheduled to return home, senior defense officials said.
Abizaid said he was working out the details of the request with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he declined to say which units were under consideration.
A wave of abductions of foreigners in Iraq raised new concerns.
Seven American contract workers and two U.S. soldiers were reported missing yesterday; their convoy came under attack Friday. Seven Chinese were released yesterday, a day after they were seized while entering Iraq from Jordan. Three Japanese hostages captured Thursday were not released, and their fate remained uncertain.
A Russian energy company said 11 of its employees were kidnapped during a clash in Baghdad that killed two Iraqi security guards, the Arabic-language television station Al-Jazeera reported.
More than 40 foreigners from at least 12 countries reportedly have been kidnapped in the last week.
Contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root, a Halliburton subsidiary, confirmed that seven of its employees were missing, including Thomas Hamill, 42, who was kidnapped last week and shown on television. The company said it was continuing to send several hundred employees a week to Kuwait and Iraq.
Security remained a major problem. Witnesses said insurgents set a U.S. military truck ablaze on the road to Baghdad International Airport. Eight convoy trucks have been destroyed since Sunday in the capital on the road to the airport.
In Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad, an Iraqi police car hit a homemade bomb yesterday.
An internal coalition security memo noted that an Apache helicopter shot down Sunday near Baghdad was the seventh aircraft to be downed or to sustain "effective small-arms fire in the last four days," including five in or near Baghdad.
Kimmitt acknowledged the situation in Iraq was not "business as usual."
"There are people out there taking hostages, kidnapping people," he said. "But we are restoring a tremendous amount of order."
He added that the number of coalition engagements with the enemy last week was two or three times above normal, and the coalition was concerned over the enemy's ability to strike convoys.
President Bush said during a news conference in Texas that the situation in Iraq was improving, "after a bad week."
The cease-fire in Fallujah, the site of much of the most intense fighting last week, seemed to hold for a third day. The Marines added another battalion of infantry Sunday, and yesterday there were 2,000 Marines in and around the city, taking occasional fire.
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said in the teleconference that U.S. forces had retaken Al-Kut and Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. He acknowledged that Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia still controlled Najaf and parts of Karbala - both Shiite spiritual centers - though he said coalition forces had cordoned off both cities in preparation for moving against Sadr, who is wanted on murder charges and is believed to be in Najaf.
"The mission of the U.S. forces is to kill or capture Muqtada al-Sadr," Sanchez said. "That's our mission."
Sadr's militia launched a bloody uprising in Baghdad and in the south April 4.
While Kimmitt said about 700 Iraqis had been killed in the fighting, an Associated Press count, based on statements by Iraqi hospital officials, U.S. military statements, and Iraqi police, shows that about 880 Iraqis have been killed.
Meanwhile, some police in Najaf and Karbala returned to work yesterday, after Sadr apparently ordered his followers to withdraw from government buildings in those cities.
Abizaid acknowledged that some U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces had defected during the weeklong uprising and that others had refused to fight.
Dan Senor, spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, praised the work of the Iraqi Governing Council in recent days, specifically for asserting itself and negotiating for a cease-fire in Fallujah. He said its actions were even more important in this difficult period.
Senor said militia groups such as Sadr's Mahdi Army were using "mob violence" before the June 30 return of sovereignty to try to shape Iraq's political future.
"It is critical that we confront them now rather than after June 30," he said. "It is critical that we cleanse the body politic of the poison that remains here after 35 years of Saddam Hussein's totalitarian rule."
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