FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) — U.S. warplanes strafed gunmen in
Fallujah yesterday, and more than 100 guerrillas with
rocket-propelled grenades pounded a lone Marine armored vehicle
lost in the streets — a sign of heavy battles ahead if
Marines resume a full assault on this besieged city.

From the AP
A U.S Army soldier secures the area outside the Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad yesterday. (AP PHOTO)

With a truce crumbling and President Bush calling for a key U.N.
role to keep the country’s political transition moving amid
the violence, a top U.N. envoy proposed an Iraqi caretaker
government in a formula that abandons a U.S.-favored plan.

Meanwhile, Iraqi militants executed one of four Italian
hostages, Italy confirmed. The captors issued demands including the
withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and threatened to kill the
three others, according to the Arab TV network Al-Jazeera, which
said it received a videotape of the murder.

The killing of the Italian, a security guard, is the first known
execution of a foreign hostage in Iraq and could further dissuade
international aid workers, contractors and journalists, some of
whom are already restricting their activities in the country.
Earlier yesterday, Russia announced it will evacuate its
citizens.

With 22 foreigners currently held captive and at least 87 U.S.
troops killed halfway into April, the unprecedented violence has
largely eclipsed the political process. Negotiations were being
held on both fronts — at Fallujah in central Iraq and at
Najaf in the south — but the U.S. military has warned it will
launch new assaults if talks do not bear fruit.

In the south, the country’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah
Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, persuaded radical cleric Muqtada
al-Sadr to drop defiant negotiating demands — including that
U.S. troops withdraw from all Iraqi cities. An Iranian envoy was
also getting involved in the mediation with al-Sadr, an aide to the
cleric said.

Still, al-Sadr militiamen appeared to be preparing for a fight,
moving into buildings and onto rooftops on Najaf’s outskirts,
said Col. Dana Pittard, head of the 2,500 U.S. troops amassed
outside the city, ready to move in against al-Sadr.

“Najaf is a holy place,” said Kaysal Hazali,
spokesman for al-Sadr. “If they attack it, God knows the
results: It is not going to be good for the occupation.”

The U.N. envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, said respected Iraqis should
lead a caretaker government — with a prime minister,
president and two vice presidents to run the country after the
handover of power by the Americans on June 30 and until national
elections in January.

He did not say who would select them.

Under the Brahimi plan, the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council
would be dissolved June 30, rather than expanded to form an
assembly as called for in an earlier proposal U.S. administrators
promoted.

However, the formula would also give Washington a way to
dissolve the fractious and unpopular 25-member council.

The White House thanked Brahimi for his plan, but it
wasn’t clear whether U.S. officials would embrace it.

“We appreciated the United Nations’ help in moving
forward on our strategy to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqi people
by June 30,” said White House press secretary Scott
McClellan.

Brahimi also criticized the U.S. military operation in
Fallujah.

“Collective punishment is certainly unacceptable and the
siege of the city is absolutely unacceptable,” he said.

In Fallujah, Marines and insurgents were fortifying their
positions in preparation for more fighting.

In abandoned homes a few blocks into the city, Marines punched
bricks out of walls to make holes through which to fire, and
knocked down walls between rooftop terraces to allow movement from
house to house without descending to the street.

They spread shards of glass across doorsteps to hear the boot of
an approaching insurgent.

Insurgents were also organizing. Gunmen were believed to be
digging tunnels under the houses they hold to allow them to move
without being targeted by Marine snipers, Marines said.

A 4-day-old truce was crumbling amid nightly battles in which
gunmen in larger groups have been attacking U.S. troops with
increasing sophistication.

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