| On vigil: A Marine in Falluja on Saturday. (AFP)
Baghdad, April 10 (Reuters): Street fighting erupted in Baghdad today and sporadic gunfire echoed across Falluja despite a new US truce offer and an effort by Iraqi officials to secure a peace deal with insurgents in the western city.
Gunmen shot at US troops from alleyways in northwest Baghdad’s Sunni Adhimiya district. Reuters journalists saw an Iraqi shot dead in his car as he tried to flee the area.
In Karbala, pilgrims watched over by Shia militiamen gathered in smaller numbers than expected for Arbain, a holy occasion that US officials say could be a target for foreign Sunni militants linked to al Qaida.
President George W. Bush said US-led forces would defeat guerrillas wreaking havoc in Iraq and reaffirmed that an interim Iraqi government would take power on June 30.
“Our coalition’s quick reaction forces are finding and engaging the enemy,” Bush said after Iraq’s bloodiest week of fighting since Saddam Hussein was ousted a year ago.
Several foreigners have been killed or taken hostage, including three Japanese, whose kidnappers have agreed to release them within 24 hours, the al Jazeera television channel said. Earlier they had threatened to kill them unless Japan pulled out its troops.
The truce offer in Falluja came after Iraqi politicians, decrying the US’ “collective punishment” meted out to local people, demanded a halt to the fighting. US Marines had launched a retaliatory crackdown in the city on Monday after four soldiers were burned and their bodies dragged through the streets.
US Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt told a news conference that fighting had continued despite Marines holding back on offensive operations since Friday.
An Iraqi negotiating team said rebels will agree to hold ceasefire talks if Marines withdraw from the city. “They want to see US forces pull out to something like five km outside the city,” said Qahtan al-Rubaie, a spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party.
He was speaking after members of his party, which is represented on the Iraqi Governing Council, and other Sunni religious leaders from Baghdad met Falluja religious and tribal leaders and government officials.
An aide to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said he was willing to start peace talks if foreign troops left Najaf, freed detained Sadr followers and ended the siege of Falluja.
The US army said it killed 12 insurgents in northern Iraq, destroying their truck with a missile, and killed three “insurgents” after clashes in the city of Mosul. At least three Iraqi police were killed in violence there, police said.