American attack on Fallujah looms as 63 are killed in Iraq's weekend of clashes

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The Independent Online

A final assault on the rebel city of Fallujah appeared imminent yesterday after Iyad Allawi, Iraq's interim Prime Minister, said chances of a peaceful solution had virtually ended and warned of civilian casualties.

A final assault on the rebel city of Fallujah appeared imminent yesterday after Iyad Allawi, Iraq's interim Prime Minister, said chances of a peaceful solution had virtually ended and warned of civilian casualties.

"Our patience is running thin," Mr Allawi said. If no deal was reached, he added: "I have no choice but to secure a military solution. I do so with a heavy heart, for even with the most careful plan there will be some loss of innocent lives. But I owe it to the people of Iraq to defend them from the violence and the terrorists and the insurgents."

He spoke as a series of attacks by insurgents continued to destabilise the country, including an explosion at a hotel in Saddam Hussein's home city of Tikrit in which 15 people were killed and eight were injured. Two rockets were fired at the hotel, used by migrant workers, one of which struck its target, shortly after evening prayers.

Mr Allawi said more than 3,000 people had been arrested in the past two weeks, including 167 foreign fighters, among them four senior members of the group led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He named them as Abu Anas al-Chami, a Palestinian; Abu Mohammed al-Lubnani, who is Lebanese; Abu Ahmed al-Tabuki, from Saudi Arabia and Abu Omar al-Masri, an Egyptian.

One condition demanded by the interim government in talks with a delegation from Fallujah is that they hand over Zarqawi, a demand the city leaders say is impossible to meet. US military commanders say privately that the militant leader may have left Fallujah.

The Iraqi Prime Minister insisted elections would still be held in January. But the lack of security was highlighted in a weekend of violence that left 63 people dead, including eight US Marines, near Fallujah, the most US deaths in a single day for six months.

Fighting also continued yesterday in Ramadi where insurgents who have slipped through the US cordon around Fallujah are believed to have regrouped. Seven people were killed and 11 were injured as US forces and militants clashed. Ramadi is on the supply route from Baghdad to Fallujah. More US troops continued to arrive for the attack on Fallujah, some of them freed by the deployment of the Black Watch battle group south-west of Baghdad. The Black Watch's new base was hit by four rockets yesterday but no one was injured.

In Fallujah, US warplanes and helicopter gunships continued air strikes and ground forces exchanged fire with resistance fighters. Lt-Col Willy Buhl, of the US army, said: "We will continue to probe the enemy's defence until such time as we decide to enter and clear the city. We'll do that when Prime Minister Allawi and President Bush tell us it is time to go."

In Baghdad yesterday, the French ambassador said two French journalists abducted in August were still alive. Bernard Bajolet was speaking after talks with Sheikh Harith al-Dhari, head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni organisation. M. Bajolet said: "We are making contacts, and we know they are in good health."

And in what appears to be a campaign against Iraqi journalists, the bullet-riddled body of Nasrallah al-Dawoodi, editor of an Arabic language newspaper covering mainly Kurdish affairs, was found in Baghdad. On Saturday, the offices of the Arabic satellite channel al-Arabiyah were car-bombed, killing seven people. Days earlier, Liqaa Abdul-Razzaq, a television newsreader, was shot dead.

A British soldier died at a base in Basra, the Ministry of Defence said, but the death did not appear to be combat-related.

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