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U.S. forces reassert control over Iraqi city

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FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) U.S. forces on Friday regained control of a southern city seized this week by a rebellious Shiite militia, the military said, while Marines halted offensive operations in Fallujah to allow negotiations as the first anniversary of the fall of Baghdad was marked by more violence.

U.S. troops fanned out across Kut, southeast of Baghdad, after meeting little resistance in the city, witnesses said, in a major foray by the American military into the south, where U.S. allies have struggled to deal with the uprising by the al-Mahdi Army, led by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

In Fallujah, Marines stopped offensive operations at noon, while a delegation of sheiks from the city met with Marine commanders, said Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne, commander of the 1st Battalion 5th Marine Regiment.

''I would not describe this as a cease-fire. We are still aggressively defending our positions. However we have ceased offensive operations for now,'' Byrne said.

Elsewhere, militants were holding at least six foreign hostages. Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, meanwhile, vowed not to withdraw 530 troops doing reconstruction work in the south after kidnappers threatened to burn three Japanese captives alive.

The recapture of Kut came a day after Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. general in Iraq, vowed that coalition forces would move ''imminently'' to break al-Sadr's hold over Kut and destroy his al-Mahdi Army militia across the country in a new operation dubbed ''Resolute Sword.''

Ukrainian troops in Kut, 95 miles southeast of Baghdad, abandoned their base Wednesday in the face of mortar fire and gunbattles, allowing al-Mahdi Army fighters to sweep in, seizing weapons stores and planting their flag.

Al-Sadr's militia also has full control over the southern cities of Kufa and the central part of Najaf. Police in the cities have abandoned their stations or stood aside as the gunmen roam the streets.

Streets in Baghdad were quiet Friday, a year after U.S Marines surrounded by cheering Iraqis pulled down the black, bronze statue of Saddam Hussein at Firdos Square in central Baghdad, marking the ouster of the Iraqi leader.

Most shops were shut and there was little traffic. An area in the city's center around the square was closed to the public.

U.S. soldiers used loud speakers to warn people in Arabic that if they come into the area and are found to have weapons they will be shot.

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