Shia guerrillas raise the stakes by claiming more foreign hostages

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Iraqi guerrillas claimed to have seized six foreign hostages yesterday as the US saw the anniversary of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein marked by the bloodiest fighting since the end of the war.

Iraqi guerrillas claimed to have seized six foreign hostages yesterday as the US saw the anniversary of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein marked by the bloodiest fighting since the end of the war.

Insurgents said they had taken four Italians and two Americans hostage in Abu Ghraib, a town on the main road just west of Baghdad where there was continual fighting yesterday. However, the Italian government said all its nationals registered in Iraq were safe. The US military said it did not have any information of Americans being seized.

A journalist for the Reuters news agency reported seeing two captive foreigners being hauled into a mosque in Abu Ghraib. The men called out "Italians, Italians".

The insurgents said the captives they identified as Italians were in a four-wheel drive vehicle and had weapons. They said the Americans were captured in a separate attack. All the hostages were being kept in a mosque guarded by 40 rebels.

The taking of foreign hostages, emulating the tactic used by Shia guerrillas in Lebanon in the 1980s, has suddenly become an important factor in Iraq. A shadowy group has sworn to burn alive three Japanese hostages, who were shown cowering in terror on a video, unless Japan withdraws its 530 troops from the country by tomorrow.

The US Marines yesterday briefly halted their assault on the city of Fallujah, where at least 280 people have been killed and 400 wounded, so negotiations could take place. But the attack was resumed soon afterwards. Relief supplies sent by sympathisers in Baghdad were turned back by marines.

The Minister for Human Rights, Abdul Basit Turki, in effect appointed by the US, resigned yesterday in protest at the methods of the Americans at Fallujah.

Adnan Pachachi, a former Iraqi foreign minister and the most respected member of the US-appointed Governing Council, told Arabic television: "These operations were a mass punishment for the people of Fallujah. We consider these operations by the Americans unacceptable and illegal."

The siege of Fallujah is giving the anti-US insurgents a popularity they did not possess before. Popular anger has led to more districts in west Baghdad falling under rebel control.

The only good news for the Allies yesterday was that they had recaptured Kut, an impoverished dusty Shia city on the Tigris south of Baghdad. It had fallen to partisans of the militant cleric Muqtada Sadr earlier in the week when Ukrainian troops withdrew after gun battles. US aircraft attacked Sadr's office and largely destroyed it.

Sadr's Army of Mehdi still controls most of the holy city of Najaf and of Kufa farther south. Its numbers are not high - perhaps 200 to 400 men in Najaf and 3,000 overall - but their swift military success last weekend shows that the coalition does not have local allies or foreign troops capable of stopping Sadr.

Sadr is not very popular or highly respected among the mass of Shias who look primarily for guidance to their religious establishment, and especially to the Grand Ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani. They see Sadr as a maverick figure, though he has a hard core of well-organised supporters. But, despite persistent US efforts to get Ayatollah Sistani to come out against Sadr, the elderly Shia leader has said the US and Sadr are equally to blame for what has happened. The US is reportedly threatening to storm Najaf in three days' time, when the present Shia festival is over, as part of an operation called Resolute Sword, designed to crush Sadr.

The early success of Sadr has shown the vulnerability of the coalition in relying on troops from countries such as Ukraine and El Salvador, which sought last year to curry favour with the US by coming to Iraq but did not expect to do any serious fighting. They now find they are being singled out as soft targets.

The fighting this week has also shown how little the US can rely on the paramilitary Iraqi forces it has been training. In many areas the police have either stayed neutral or joined the rebels. In Kut, the Army of Mehdi simply marched into the police stations, expelled the police and took over their weapons stores. In Fallujah, the US-trained paramilitary Iraqi Civil Defence Corps (ICDC) is alleged to have lured to their deaths the four Americans who were killed and mutilated last month.

The shaken nerves of the US military and civil leaders in Baghdad were visible yesterday on the anniversary of the day a year ago when the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Fardous Square. Instead of any form of celebration, the US army had sealed off the square with rolls of razor wire. An armoured vehicle with a loudspeaker circled the roundabout announcing that all demonstrations were forbidden and anybody coming to the square with a gun would be shot on sight.

The vehicle, as if to make sure that no Iraqi would remain uninsulted, then played loud rock music over its speaker outside the large mosque.