Iraqis sitting on a truck pass a burning US convoy attacked in Abu Gharib (AFP)
Negotiate with terrorists, and what do you get? More terrorism.
BAGHDAD (AFP) – The US-led coalition and insurgents in the Sunni bastion of Fallujah agreed to a 12-hour ceasefire beginning Sunday at 0600 GMT after six days of fierce clashes which claimed the lives of hundreds of people, an Iraqi mediator said.
However, the insurgents threatened to kill a presumed American citizen unless the siege of the Sunni Muslim town was lifted in the latest example of their new tactic of kidnapping foreigners to win concessions on the ground and put pressure on US allies in Iraq.
“The two sides have agreed to observe a 12-hour ceasefire tomorrow Sunday at 10:00 am,” or 0600 GMT, a senior member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, Hatem al-Husseini, told AFP.
“This will pave the way for the gradual pullout of US Marine troops from Fallujah,” Husseini said after a meeting with coalition officials in Baghdad on his return from the mediation talks in the town west of the capital.
The apparent breakthrough came after the coalition suspended offensive operations in Fallujah and offered the talks.
A 35-member Iraqi delegation, led by members of the US-installed interim Governing Council, entered Fallujah and held meetings to mediate an end to the bloodshed.
However, a group calling itself “the mujahedeen of Iraq to US forces” still threatened to kill a presumed US national identified as Thomas Hamill if the siege was not lifted.
Hamill was apparently the same man shown in an Australian television report shortly after being captured after an attack on a convoy.
“If this is not heeded within 12 hours starting at 6:00 pm (1500 GMT) on Saturday, April 10, 2004, he will be treated worse than those who were killed and burned in Fallujah,” the group said in an audiotaped message read on Al-Jazeera satellite TV.
The group was referring to four US contractors were ambushed in Fallujah last week and the charred bodies of two of them were mutilated and strung from a bridge. The outrage provoked the US offensive in Fallujah.
In a related development, Al-Jazeera also reported the abductors of three Japanese nationals in Iraq had decided to free their hostages within 24 hours in response to an appeal from Muslim clerics.
The captors from the “Mujahedeen Brigades” had threatened to burn the three alive if Japanese troops were not pulled out of Iraq by 1200 GMT Sunday — 72 hours after footage was broadcast showing the three in captivity.
The statement urged the Japanese to put pressure on their government to withdraw its troops from Iraq. The coalition has taken a no-deal stand with the kidnappers.
The Fallujah breakthrough came as much of the country leaders denounced the Fallujah offensive and large parts of Baghdad closed down in a protest strike. Heavy exchanges of fire also broke out in the city’s main Sunni neighborhood.
It also came as the coalition offered a draft ceasefire agreement to Moqtada Sadr, the outlawed radical Shiite cleric whose militia has battled occupation forces across central and southern Iraq, an intermediary said.
US officials earlier said they had suspended the Fallujah offensive as of noon (0800 GMT) to allow for talks on the delivery of relief supplies and the care of the dead and wounded.
Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the deputy director of operations, said the coalition was looking for a full ceasefire in the town where more than 400 Iraqis have been killed and 1,000 wounded since fighting erupted Sunday.
“If the ceasefire holds, talks regarding the establishment of legitimate Iraqi authority will begin,” he told a Baghdad news conference, adding that the US army retained the “right of self-defence.”
But military ground commanders said they did not expect any truce to last.
Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne, the commander of the First Battalion- Fifth Marines in Fallujah, warned it was unrealistic to expect battle-hardened insurgents to surrender.
“The fact they’ve been wearing belt bombs, the virulent nature with which they’ve been fighting, the chances of the Iraqi Governing Council and city fathers getting Joe Jihadi to surrender are pretty slim,” Byrne said.
He added that marines had detained 60 insurgents, including five foreigners from Sudan, Egypt and Syria, in the area.
Battles raged in Fallujah throughout the day despite the efforts to broker a peace and a marine was killed and another wounded, a marine statement said.
The marines also said they killed between 10 and 12 insurgents after a convoy of US light-armored vehicles was ambushed by up to 30 guerrillas further west near the Syrian border.
As late as Saturday night, insurgents were lobbing mortars rounds at US positions and large explosions rocked the city while warplanes flew overhead.
The marine forces were being bolstered by a third US marine battalion and a fourth consisting of members of the paramilitary Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.
The US offensive has also alarmed the coalition’s Iraqi partners who fear it could push back the June 30 deadline for the restoration of self-rule.
The US-installed Governing Council issued a statement denouncing the onslaught as amounting to “collective punishment of innocent civilians” as well as insurgents.