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Two U.S. soldiers missing near Baghdad

Several civilian contractors also unaccounted for

Baghdad firemen try to douse blaze after a mob set a supply truck on fire.

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Stay with CNN for live reports from Iraq as well as correspondents' updates and ongoing analysis on the coalition's efforts to quell the Mehdi Army and dramatic new violence in the embattled country.
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The U.S. military halts its offensive against Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah to hold talks and says it is close to retaking Kut.

CNN's Walter Rodgers reports on the Japanese and Arab hostages taken by Iraqi insurgents.

Three blindfolded Japanese are held captive as kidnappers brandish weapons.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Two U.S. soldiers and an unknown number of civilian contractors are unaccounted for after a fuel convoy was attacked Friday near Baghdad International Airport, a senior Pentagon official says.

Another 13th Corps Support Command soldier and an Iraqi driver were killed in the incident, and 12 people were wounded.

The contractors' nationality was not immediately known.

The official said "unaccounted for" means that U.S. troops are looking for the soldiers and contractors. The senior Pentagon official said a search is under way.

The four-truck convoy was hit with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades and exploded into flames, the official said.

Meanwhile Friday, in the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah, where the insurgency has been most fierce, the U.S.-led coalition halted its offensive to allow Iraqis to bury the dead and aid supplies to be brought in.

Iraqi Governing Council members also met with Fallujah leaders and leadership of the anticoalition forces to try to bring calm.

U.S. Marines were allowing only women and children to leave the city, while allowing humanitarian supplies, such as food and medical supplies, to enter.

But even as the offensive was paused, sporadic fighting continued that left at least one Marine dead.

Los Angeles Times reporter Tony Perry told CNN he saw insurgents attack a Red Crescent aid convoy.

Another time, the 1st Marine Division said at least 16 insurgents opened fire on Marines and retreated to a cave.

An AC-130 gunship was called in to attack the cave, and two 500-pound, laser-guided bombs were dropped on it.

"We will fight the enemy on our terms. May God help them when we're done with them," said Maj. Gen. James Mattis, the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division.

Earlier in the day, Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, said the cessation in Fallujah was a halt only in the offensive there in recent days, not a halt in all military action.

"We certainly will take whatever military action we need to defend ourselves and to prevent the enemy from taking advantage there," said Abizaid, who visited Fallujah.

He also said he was not surprised by the resistance in Fallujah, which had been the military and special intelligence center for the former Iraqi regime.

Fallujah also is the city where four American contractors were killed last week, their bodies mutilated and dragged through the streets.

Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Governing Council, urged Fallujah residents "to cooperate and expose the terrorists who committed the heinous killing and mutilation of bodies and surrendering them to face justice."

The resistance movement has swept through parts of Iraq during the past week after the coalition sought the arrest of the firebrand, anticoalition Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and shut down his newspaper.

Since the start of April, at least 51 coalition troops -- nearly all of them Americans -- have been killed, marking one of the bloodiest stretches of the war since the fall of Baghdad. To date, 753 coalition forces, including 650 U.S. troops, have died in the war.

Baghdad and al-Sadr

In Baghdad's Firdos Square, the scene was a stark contrast last year, when jubilant celebrations accompanied the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein. Friday, the square was empty, and Iraqis were told that anyone with a weapon would be shot on sight.

On the platform where Saddam's statue once stood, posters of al-Sadr -- whose supporters have been blamed for inflaming the insurgency -- were visible. U.S. soldiers pulled them down.

At a Baghdad mosque, hundreds of Shiites and Sunnis prayed together and denounced the coalition.

South of Baghdad in Najaf, Karbala and Kut, the coalition was carrying out offensives against the Mehdi Army, militants backing al-Sadr.

"We are conducting offensive operations against the Sadr militia," Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told reporters. "We intend to destroy the Sadr militia and all of its elements within."

He added, "We expect that we should be able to regain control over any government Iraqi facilities that have been occupied in the last couple of days by Sadr militia."

Al-Sadr, who is wanted in connection with the killing of a rival last year, is believed to be holed up in his office in Najaf under heavy guard.

Kimmitt said coalition forces are ringing the city and "are still remaining vigilant ... carefully watching the Arbayeen (Muslim holiday) festivities, and to the extent possible, maintaining security in their area."

In Kut, Kimmitt said, U.S. forces retook the Coalition Provisional Authority compound that had been overrun by al-Sadr's militia days earlier. Three bridges in the town "were taken quickly," he said, and "we destroyed the Sadr bureau through Air Force air."

"We would expect by this time tomorrow morning that we should have firm coalition control of all facilities, government facilities, Iraqi police stations," he said. "The characterization of the combat is such that, by and large, when coalition forces come in and attack, the Sadr forces shoot and scoot."

Tribal leaders in Kut -- apparently opposed to the violence incited by the militant Shiite Muslim cleric -- also fought his militia, a U.S.-led coalition source close to the situation said Friday.

Kimmitt also said there has been a "slight uptick in the number of attacks" in the north-central area -- the towns of Tikrit, Ba'qubah, Kirkuk and Samarra -- but the risk has not increased.

Northern Iraq around Mosul is "quite calm" Kimmitt said.

Japan says it won't give in to demands

Two of the three Japanese hostages are shown in an image taken from a videotape released by Iraqi militants.

In another development, Japan is holding firm in its refusal to withdraw troops from Iraq despite militants' threat to burn alive three kidnapped Japanese civilians.

The Japanese hostages -- two men and a woman -- are among five civilians known to be held by militants fighting the coalition.

The other two hostages are humanitarian workers of Arab descent. Seven South Korean missionaries were held for seven hours Thursday before being released.

Japanese viewers reacted in shock and anger to a videotape showing the three hostages held at gunpoint and threatened with knives. The video was delivered to the Arabic-language TV network Al-Jazeera with a written demand: Withdraw Japanese troops from Iraq within three days, or the hostages will be burned alive.

At a news briefing Friday, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said a troop withdrawal would be "playing into the hands of the terrorists."

"That is what the terrorists are waiting for us to do," Fukuda said.

Japan has more than 500 troops on the ground, part of a 1,000-strong contingent heading to Iraq for humanitarian missions. The deployment has stirred up controversy, with many critics arguing the dispatch violates Japan's pacifist constitution.

Hundreds protested Friday in Tokyo, demanding the troops be withdrawn.

The three hostages' names -- seen on passports in news footage -- are Koriyama Soichiro, who has a press card issued in Jordan for Weekly Asahi; Imai Noriaki; and Takato Nahoko. (Full story)

Other developments

  • A British man working in Iraq was shot dead Friday, the British Foreign Office said. Britain's Press Association said Michael Bloss was a former soldier working as a security guard.
  • Three Marines serving with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were killed Thursday by hostile fire in Anbar province.
  • Iraqi Governing Council members were chosen to fill several government positions involving security, the coalition said. Samir Shakir Mahmood Sumaidy was chosen to be interior minister. He replaces Nuri al-Badran, who resigned Thursday. Mowaffak al-Rubaie was appointed national security adviser, a new post.
  • British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told the British Broadcasting Corp. on Friday that the recent violence represents the "most serious" situation the U.S.-led coalition has faced since President Bush declared the end of major combat. (Full story)

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