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Amid violence, talks are to convene

Warplane fires on Fallujah
Explosions and gunfire were heard Wednesday night in Fallujah.
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Pool reporter Karl Penhaul shows scenes from Wednesday's fighting in Fallujah.

Pool reporter Karl Penhaul describes the nighttime shelling in Fallujah.

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Armed Conflict

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- A U.S. gunship attack left a ceiling of black smoke above northern Fallujah late Wednesday, the day before talks aimed at keeping a bloody confrontation between insurgents and U.S. Marines from escalating get under way.

U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Tuesday that if the conflict in Fallujah were not contained, the result could be "dramatic and long-lasting."

The talks in the city west of Baghdad will involve Sunni sheiks from across Iraq, coalition representatives, Iraqi authorities and city leaders.

Asked whether a more brutal conflict was avoidable, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters Wednesday: "Time will tell."

Describing the status around Fallujah, Rumsfeld said, "Terrorists and regime remnants have been attacking our forces, and our forces have been going in and killing them."

The AC-130 Spectre gunship fired its cannons at targets in northeastern Fallujah, causing large fires in the area where insurgents fought U.S. troops earlier in the day.

There were no immediate reports on possible casualties.

Judging from the secondary explosion, it appeared that the gunship with its 105 mm cannon, hit something flammable, such as an ammunitions dump, according to pool reporter Karl Penhaul.

"We can still see the afterglow of orange flames and plumes of black smoke rising up into Fallujah's night sky," Penhaul said.

He also said Marines on the ground were engaged in firefights, and loudspeakers from mosques were urging insurgents to take up arms and fight.

An unmanned Predator spy plane was flying above the city, searching for insurgent hideouts, he said.

The strike followed a dramatic late-afternoon firefight in which Marine helicopters and snipers cranked up an assault on three buildings harboring insurgents.

It was the third day of coalition strikes against insurgent targets.

U.S. commanders paused the offensive against insurgents earlier this month to let negotiators try to arrange a return to Iraqi civil control in the city, but the fighting hasn't stopped despite a declared cease-fire.

Top commander said to be worried

In Washington, President Bush said such fighting is continuing in "pockets of resistance."

"Our military commanders will take whatever action is necessary to secure Fallujah," he said.

But officials in contact with the top U.S. commander in Iraq said Gen. John Abizaid is "worried" the anti-American violence in Fallujah will spread. He is said to be particularly "concerned" that more moderate Iraqis aren't stepping forward to condemn the insurgents.

Insurgents have used murder and intimidation to frighten many Iraqis into not cooperating with the coalition.

In a brazen display in Fallujah, insurgents are distributing posters in Arabic and English offering a $15 million reward to anyone who kills Rumsfeld, commander of coalition forces Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez or U.S. Army spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt.

A new poll finds half the Iraqis surveyed believe the U.S.-led war has done more harm than good, but 61 percent of respondents said Saddam Hussein's ouster makes it worth any hardships. (Full story)

Despite daily skirmishes, the U.S. military has said it intends to let the peace talks play out in an effort to establish a cease-fire in Fallujah.

Kimmitt said they still want to give negotiations a chance and that most of the fighting has been limited to one area of the city.

"The vast majority of Fallujah is under a cease-fire," said Kimmitt. "But it seems as if in the northwest and the north-central area of Fallujah, there seems to be a determined group of insurgents that don't want to put down their arms."

The military has estimated the number of insurgents there around 1,500.

Kimmitt hopes that in the long-term Fallujah can become a vital community within Iraq.

"What we want Fallujah to be is a place that is benefiting from all of the reconstruction that will bring into this country," he said. "We want it to be under Iraqi control. We want the health system working. We want the schools opening. And that's what we're pushing for on a peaceful track."

At the same time, he said the military won't wait forever: "There is a point in time when it is apparent to everybody that there's no reason to come back to the negotiating table. ... We're not at that point yet."

Volunteers for suicide attacks

The coalition is working on ways to re-establish local authority. Marines and members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps have begun rehearsal for joint patrols, which are soon set to begin in Fallujah.

While some families are trickling back into the city, many people have become displaced. The Iraqi Red Crescent is operating a camp in northern Baghdad, where at least 70 families have taken refuge.

Around Najaf, the other Iraqi flashpoint, U.S. soldiers started settling into positions vacated by Spanish troops and seized a checkpoint that had been manned by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia.

A spokesman for al-Sadr, meanwhile, said his forces are prepared to carry out suicide attacks against U.S. troops if necessary.

"The number of people who are ready to carry out suicide attacks is increasing day after day, and we are telling them to wait until they (U.S. forces) cross the 'red lines,' as defined by the religious authority," Sheikh Qais al-Khazali, an al-Sadr spokesman, told a Reuters cameraman.

Sources inside the city report that al-Sadr's militia, the Mehdi Army, has been ordered to wear civilian clothing.

American, unarmed peace activists entered Najaf with a banner calling for the United States not to become the new Saddam and urging Americans to respect the rights of Iraqis

Other developments

  • Six U.S. soldiers have been charged with abusing prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, Kimmitt said Wednesday. The investigation began in January after a soldier reported the abuse to superiors, according to Kimmitt. He would not disclose the charges or details of the abuse, but said military authorities take any such reports seriously. "We are committed to treating all persons under coalition custody with dignity, respect and humanity," he said.
  • A U.S. Army soldier who was wounded Tuesday in northern Iraq died Wednesday, Kimmitt said, bringing the total number of American troops killed since the war began to 726, according to the U.S. military.
  • Two Ukrainian coalition soldiers were killed and another wounded in an ambush Wednesday in the area of As Suwaiyrah in Wasit province, the Polish-led command said.
  • Syria's president Wednesday called the insurgent attacks a legitimate uprising in an interview for the Arabic-language television network Al-Jazeera. "It is resistance," President Bashar al-Assad said. "Popular support" in Iraq lends the fighting "legitimacy," he said. "We don't have the right to call it anything else. This means it's a popular situation and it's the popular support that makes it into a resistance. If we want to call it something else, what can we say?" Assad added that he and Iraqis don't approve of killing civilians.
  • U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Wednesday called an assessment of the violence in Iraq by his envoy Lakhdar Brahimi "very sober" and urged "restraint and dialogue" there. "I want to add my voice to [Brahimi's] in appealing to all parties in Iraq to refrain from violence, to respect international humanitarian law, and to give this process of political transition a chance." Brahimi said the handover process is "doable" but the security situation remains "extremely worrying." (Full story)
  • CNN's Ben Wedeman, Sue Kroll and Jamie McIntyre, and Karl Penhaul, the U.S. networks' pool reporter in Fallujah, contributed to this report.

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