Guerrillas gun down US helicopter but ceasefire takes hold in besieged Fallujah

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Iraqi guerrillas shot down an American Apache helicopter west of Baghdad yesterday, killing its crew. But a truce in Fallujah enabled talks to start on ending the siege in which an estimated 1,800 Iraqis have been killed or wounded.

Iraqi guerrillas shot down an American Apache helicopter west of Baghdad yesterday, killing its crew. But a truce in Fallujah enabled talks to start on ending the siege in which an estimated 1,800 Iraqis have been killed or wounded.

Dark plumes of smoke rose from Abu Ghraib on the western outskirts of Baghdad where the AH-64 Apache helicopter of the 1st Cavalry Division crashed and exploded. It is unclear if it was hit by gunfire or a missile, but insurgents around Fallujah have shown in the past six months that they are skilful in the use of shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles. US helicopters now fly very low and fast to avoid them.

The US Marines, which have four battalions around Fallujah, a city of 300,000, said the ceasefire was largely holding although two of their men were wounded, one in the head and the other in the leg, by an Iraqi sniper who they claim to have killed. Casualties have ceased to pour into the over-crowded local hospitals.

"I have ordered my fighters to adhere to the ceasefire," a guerrilla commander in al-Jolan district of Fallujah told Al-Jazeera television.

"We will stop operations as long as the other side does as well. But I warn everybody: If the enemy breaks the ceasefire we will respond. "

The US continues to pay a heavy political price in Iraq for its week-long attack on Fallujah which Iraqis generally see as an assault on the civilian population. International relief groups say 470 Iraqis have been killed and 1,200 wounded, including 243 women and 200 children. Only five Marines have died in the fighting in the city.

While the Marines have not suffered significant losses in Fallujah, the 30-mile-long road behind them has fallen into the hands of Iraqi fighters.

They have made repeated attacks on convoys and even set fire to an American tank with a rocket propelled grenade. Two US soldiers have gone missing in the area.

The US has only very limited control over al-Anbar province, a vast area with a population of 1.25 million, most of them living in towns and cities on the Euphrates river. It was in this area that two German embassy security specialists were killed when their vehicle was stopped on the road to Jordan last week.

Dr Adnan Pachachi, a senior member of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, to whom the coalition is to hand over power on 30 June, told The Independent yesterday that the siege of Fallujah "makes clear that the council has no authority. We were never told about the attack".

No Iraqi Arab politician, even those wholly dependent on the US, dare stand up in public and support the actions of the US marines in Fallujah.

Dr Pachachi, a softly spoken 80-year-old former Iraqi foreign minister underlined the degree to which moderate Iraqis have been alienated, saying: "The whole thing smacks of an act of vengeance. It is collective punishment. Too much force was used."

The United States is demanding that those responsible for killing four American civilians whose death and mutilation precipitated the siege be brought to justice. Dr Pachachi said: "I don't believe the people responsible for the murders are still there." He said the ceasefire envisaged a phased withdrawal by the United States marines from the centre of Fallujah.

Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, who acts as a United States military spokesman, said that the fighters in Fallujah must "lay down their arms" and renounce membership of extremist groups, a highly unlikely outcome.

The Governing Council is trying to restore its battered credibility in the eyes of Iraqis, many of whom see it as an American puppet, by negotiating a solution to the crisis over Fallujah. But the long term damage to the American position in Iraq will be impossible to repair. It is difficult to meet an Iraqi who approves of US tactics. A battalion of the newly raised US-trained Iraqi army reportedly refused to go to Fallujah last week saying it would not fight fellow Iraqis.

Anger over Fallujah has reignited a sense of outraged Iraqi patriotism among Shia as well as Sunni Arabs. Among the first trucks carrying food to Fallujah yesterday were 15 people from the vast but impoverished Shia district of Sadr city. Anti-American slogans have been inscribed on walls in Baghdad.

The US army's trigger-happy use of its massive fire power, regardless of how many civilians are killed, infuriates Iraqis. For instance last Friday night an official of the Iraqi National Congress, which is part of the Governing Council, had just cleared an American checkpoint in the district of Adhamiyah in Baghdad when a sniper opened up on the US troops. They fired back in all directions killing his driver, wounding his bodyguard and hitting him with four bullets. He says seven other civilians were killed in the incident. The US army does not give figures for Iraqi civilian casualties and does not appear to collect them.

In southern Iraq hundreds of thousands of Shia pilgrims went to the holy city of Kerbala yesterday for the Arbain ceremony, but their number was reduced by the uprising by the Army of the Mahdi of Muktada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric. His men control part of the city as well as most of Najaf and Kufa.

The Governing Council is trying to negotiate an end to his confrontation with the coalition, but Sadr sounds confident. His aide Qays al-Khazali said he was willing to start peace talks if foreign troops left Najaf, freed his followers who were imprisoned and ended the siege of Fallujah.

It is unclear who in the US administration, either in Washington or Baghdad, decided to launch the siege of Fallujah which has proved so politically disastrous. When pressed by Iraqi politicians Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, does not defend what is happening. That suggests the operation may be taking place at the initiative of the White House but is very much in the hands of uniformed officers in the Pentagon.