November 1, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Militants kidnapped an American, a Nepalese and four Iraqi guards in a bloody assault on their office in the capital Monday, and gunmen assassinated Baghdad's deputy governor in a drive-by shooting, new violence that came as voter registration began for vital January elections.

West of the capital, U.S. troops clashed with Sunni insurgents, and American artillery pounded suspected insurgent positions in Fallujah, witnesses said.

U.S. forces are gearing up for a major offensive against Fallujah, the strongest bastion of Sunni insurgets. The order to launch what would likely be a bloody assault must come from Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who warned Sunday that his patience with negotiations was thinning.

U.S. and Iraqi officials hope to curb the insurgency in time for national elections by the end of January.

A handful of Iraqis showed up for the first day of voter registration in central Baghdad on Monday. They refused to allow TV cameras to film them for fear of future retaliation.

To help protect the voting, fresh American soldiers arrived in the capital Monday - reinforcements that push the total U.S. military presence in Iraq to around 142,000, the highest level since the summer of 2003.

The latest in Iraq's wave of kidnappings came when gunmen stormed the offices of a Saudi company in the upscale Mansour district of Baghdad, sparking a battle with guards during the evening iftar meal when Muslims break their daylong fast in the holy month of Ramadan, police said.

One attacker and one guard were killed in the fight, before the gunmen made off with their captives, police said. Police Lt. Col. Maan Khalaf identified the captives as an American, a Nepalese and the four Iraqis. U.S. Embassy spokesman Bob Callahan confirmed that the fourth victim was an American.

"We heard gunfire. I went outside to see what's going on when a man pointed a machine gun at me and said: 'Get in or else I'll shoot at you,'" said Haidar Karar, who lives in the neighborhood.

From his house he saw "at least 20 attackers, some masked and some not." He said some were wearing traditional Arab robes and all were carrying automatic weapons.

The office is about 500 yards from a residence from which residents kidnapped two Americans and a Briton in September. All three were later beheaded. An al-Qaida-linked group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the slayings.

Twelve Americans have been kidnapped or are missing in Iraq, and at least three of them have been killed, including an American slain by al-Zarqawi's followers in April. The group also claimed responsiblity for the abduction of a Japanese hostage whose decapitated body was found on Saturday, wrapped in an American flag and dumped on a Baghdad street.

Also Monday, gunmen opened fire on a car carrying Baghdad province's deputy governor, Hatim Kamil, to work Monday morning, killing Kamil, said Baghdad Governor Ali al-Haidari. Two of Kamil's bodyguards were wounded, Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman said.

A known militant group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, claimed responsibility for the attack in southeastern Baghdad.

"This is the fate of whoever is aiding or supporting the crusaders against the Muslims and mujahedeen," the group said on its Web site. It was impossible to verify the claim's authenticity.

Insurgents have killed dozens of Iraqi politicians and government workers in recent months in a bid to destabilize the country's reconstruction.

The group also said it was behind the assassination of the deputy governor of Diyala province on Friday in the central Iraqi city of Baqouba. Aqil Hamid al-Adili, the assistant to the governor for projects affairs, was killed by unidentified gunmen as he was sitting in a friend's office.

Allawi's speech Sunday seemed aimed at preparing the Iraqi public for an onslaught in Fallujah, Allawi warned of civilian casualties, saying that if he orders an assault, it would be with a "heavy heart."

"But I owe, owe it to the Iraqi people to defend them from the violence and the terrorists and insurgents," he said. Commanders have estimated that up to 5,000 Islamic militants, Saddam Hussein loyalists and common criminals are holed up in Fallujah.

He did not give a deadline for how long he would give negotiations with Fallujah's city leaders in which he demands the handover of foreign fighters.

In a position that appeared to contrast with Allawi's, the country's interim president said a military assault was the wrong solution, according to an interview published Monday.

President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni Muslim, told the Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas that dialogue must continue and that insurgents "want nothing but a military solution, and the continuation of bleeding among Iraqis."

Meanwhile, heavy clashes between U.S. forces and insurgents continued Monday in Ramadi, an insurgent stronghold 70 miles west of Baghdad.

A bomb in Ramadi on Sunday killed one Marine and wounded four others, the military said. The blast brought to nine the number of Marines killed in the area over the weekend. At least 1,121 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an AP count.

In Monday's fighting in Ramadi, one woman was killed and her two children injured, hospital officials said.

Also killed was an Iraqi freelance television cameraman, Diaa Najm, who provided material to Associated Press Television News - believed to be the 24 journalist killed in Iraq this year.

On Monday, the British army's new base south of Baghdad was rocketed for the fourth straight day as Black Watch troops prepared to begin patrolling their new area of operation, British pool reports said.

Seven rockets landed in the space of an hour yesterday morning in the perimeter of Camp Dogwood, 30 miles southwest of Baghdad. British forces were brought to central Iraq to relieve U.S. troops expected to take part in a major assault west of Baghdad.

Baghdad's Camp Victory North, the sprawling headquarters of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, was brimming to capacity with the arrival of the 3,700-member Louisiana-based 256th Enhanced Separate Brigade, a National Guard unit that has been rolling into the Iraqi capital over the past few days.

The 1st Cavalry's 2nd Brigade had been scheduled to return to Fort Hood, Texas, in November, but its departure was delayed by two months, military officials said.

The newly arriving troops leave Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commander of the 1st Cavalry, in charge of eight Army brigades - or more than 32,000 soldiers.

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