BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) — U.S. Marines in Fallujah were engaged in intense fighting in an attempt to pacify the city of 300,000, which has been a steady and violent source of anti-U.S. sentiment.
Monday, Marines sealed off the main roads into Fallujah and enforced a 7 p.m. curfew in the first step of Operation Vigilant Resolve, the U.S. military’s response to the brutal deaths of four U.S. civilian contractors at the hands of a Fallujah mob last week.
Four Marines with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were were killed Monday in Fallujah.
About 1,300 troops from the 1st MEF, along with Iraqi armed forces, cordoned the city Monday, said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.
The Marines came under intense fire late Monday. Iraqi insurgents fired mortars and rocket-propelled grenades from a mosque and from an open field.
One Marine was killed in a gun battle earlier Monday, the Coalition Press Information Center said, and reports from sources inside the city said at least seven Iraqis were killed Monday morning.
Angry Shiite Muslims, led by an influential cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, are presenting a new front for the U.S.-led coalition.
Firefights between U.S. soldiers and the cleric’s militia Monday night left at least 60 Iraqis dead in Sadr City, the Baghdad district named for the cleric’s slain father.
In separate incidents, three U.S. soldiers died in combat in a Shiite area of Baghdad Monday and early Tuesday, the Coalition Press Information Center said.
The soldiers were assigned to the Army’s 1st Armored Division.
One soldier died after his convoy was attacked by small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades as it moved through the Kadhimyah district at 11 a.m. Monday, the coalition said.
A second soldier died in the same area about 9:30 p.m. Monday when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his vehicle during a firefight, the coalition said.
A third soldier died three hours later — at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday — when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his Humvee in the same neighborhood, the coalition said.
Since the war in Iraq started in March 2003, 622 U.S. service members have been killed, 476 of them after President Bush declared a end to major hostilities May 1.
Despite the rising death toll, the U.S.-backed coalition’s top civilian administrator told CNN that “there is no question we have control over the country.”
“I know if you just report on those few places it does look chaotic,” Paul Bremer said on “American Morning.” “But if you travel around the country, what you find is a bustling economy, people opening businesses right and left, unemployment has dropped.”
Firefights continued Tuesday in Baghdad, particularly the Shiite slum Sadr City. Reports also indicated that Italian troops were battling Sadr supporters in Nasiriyah.
In Sadr City, the battles were fought over several police stations and government buildings. Fighting there Sunday night left eight American soldiers and at least 45 Iraqis dead, sources said.
Some of the gunfire against the U.S. troops came from hospital buildings but the soldiers did not return fire, U.S. Army Capt. Brian O’Malley said.
The recent increase in violence prompted U.S. Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid to ask his senior staff for options for sending more troops to Iraq. The troops would either be additional U.S. troops or coalition forces from other countries.
Sources said Abizaid is particularly concerned that unrest in the Shiite community could grow, and those radical elements could join forces with Sunni radicals.
Al-Sadr, is believed to have about 600 hardcore followers and as many as 3,000 militia members at his command.
The weekend violence followed the arrest of a deputy of al-Sadr. On Monday, officials in Baghdad announced an arrest warrant for al-Sadr, too.
Coalition forces handed over Mustafa al-Yaqoubi, the al-Sadr deputy, to Iraqi police Monday after arresting him Saturday on a warrant from an Iraqi judge, coalition officials said.
Al-Yaqoubi, al-Sadr and 23 others are charged with complicity in the death of rival Shiite cleric Abdul Majeed al-Khoei by a mob of al-Sadr supporters in Najaf a year ago. Thirteen, including al-Yaqoubi, are in custody, officials said.
Monday, coalition forces raided and took control of al-Sadr’s office in Baghdad’s al-Shaala neighborhood, bringing in ground forces and Apache helicopters, witnesses said. Several people were wounded in the raid, sources said.
When asked why the coalition waited so long from the time arrest warrants were issued — last fall, officials said — before taking action, spokesman Dan Senor said it was the Iraqi judge’s call.
Bremer accused al-Sadr on Monday of trying to usurp “the legitimate authority of the Iraqi government and the coalition.”
In recent weeks, al-Sadr has incited violence against the United States and called the attacks of September 11, 2001, a gift from God.
Al-Sadr is believed to have taken refuge in the al-Kufah mosque, near the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, a senior coalition official said.
Meanwhile, President Bush reaffirmed on Monday the U.S. plan to turn over sovereignty to an Iraqi government June 30, saying during a speech in North Carolina that “the date remains firm.”
Britain is sending thousands of troops to Iraq to replace those already serving there, a British Ministry of Defense spokeswoman said Tuesday. Maj. Rachel Grimes said the move was part of a “normal” six-month troop rotation and would not result in an increase in the number of British troops in Iraq. About 4,500 members of the 1st Mechanized Brigade will begin deploying to Iraq at the end of the week, Grimes said. The rotation will take about a month to complete, she said.