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Marines, Iraqis join forces to shut down Fallujah

Coalition seeks to arrest Shiite cleric

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Coalition officials are looking to arrest the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. CNN's Walter Rodgers reports.

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In Najaf, protests over the treatment of a prominent cleric turn violent.

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FALLUJAH, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. Marines fought skirmishes with Iraqi fighters Monday in and around the restive city of Fallujah, closing off the city in response to the killing and mutilation of four American security guards last week.

Marines killed at least one Iraqi and called in airstrikes late Monday after coming under fire from mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns on the outskirts of town.

About 1,300 troops from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, along with Iraqi armed forces, set up a cordon around the city Monday, said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. The push has been dubbed "Operation Vigilant Resolve."

"These are the first of a series of actions taken to attack anticoalition and anti-Iraqi forces, to re-establish security in Fallujah and begin the process of civil military assistance projects in Fallujah," Kimmitt said.

U.S. forces also had their hands full Monday morning with the aftermath of violence in Baghdad and Najaf that left at least nine coalition forces and dozens of Iraqis dead over the weekend. The violence followed the arrest of a deputy of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Meanwhile, all roads into Fallujah were closed, and the city's mayor imposed a 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. One Marine was killed in a gunbattle earlier Monday, the Coalition Press Information Center said, and reports from sources inside the city said at least seven Iraqis were killed Monday morning.

Troops closed the main highways between Baghdad and the Jordanian border during the operation, and the only people allowed to pass through the checkpoints are those with Fallujah license plates, military sources said.

Retaliation for civilian killings

Fallujah is part of Anbar province in the so-called Sunni Triangle, a region north and west of Baghdad that has been a hotbed of opposition to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

The men were killed by attackers who hit their vehicles with grenades and small-arms fire, and a mob dragged their bodies from the burning vehicles and mutilated them. The charred remains of two of the men were hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River as a crowd celebrated below.

Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, promised that the deaths of the contractors would "not go unpunished." U.S. officials said they were trying to isolate and identify the faces of people seen on the videotapes participating in the abuse of the corpses and may offer rewards for their capture.

The Fallujah operation may unfold over several days, and the Marines may not attempt to control the center of the town, military sources said.

"Our concern is precise," said Lt. James Vanzant, a Marine spokesman. "We want to get the guys we are after. We don't want to go in there with guns blazing."

The Marines came under intense fire late Monday, with Iraqi insurgents firing mortars and rocket-propelled grenades at their positions from a mosque and from an open field.

U.S. forces moving against those positions also came under attack from Iraqis who fired machine guns and threw grenades at them from a BMW sedan. The Marines killed one and wounded at least two of their attackers, taking the survivors into custody.

An Air Force AC-130 Spectre gunship, armed with a 105 mm cannon, was called in to push back the attackers, and no Marines were hurt.

The operation involves troops from the U.S. Marines' 2nd battalion, 1st Marines, and the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, both stationed at Camp Pendleton, California, Vanzant said.

Coalition plans to arrest Shiite cleric

Meanwhile, officials in Baghdad announced an arrest warrant for al-Sadr, who has been an outspoken critic of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

Coalition forces handed over Mustafa al-Yaqoubi, a deputy of al-Sadr, 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.

Meanwhile, President Bush reaffirmed 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."

Over the weekend, a key Republican senator, Richard Lugar, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had suggested it might be necessary to extend the June 30 deadline.(Full story)

And because of new violence generated by illegal militia loyal to al-Sadr, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid has asked his senior staff to submit options within 48 hours for sending more troops to Iraq, sources said Monday.

A senior Central Command official told reporters "we have asked the staff to look and see what forces are available in quick response if needed."

Quick-response forces are generally helicopter-borne troops that can rapidly respond to a crisis.

The added troops would either be additional U.S. troops or coalition forces from other countries.

Abizaid is said to be 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.

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.

In Baghdad over the weekend, eight U.S. forces were killed in clashes with al-Sadr's banned militia, Mehdi's Army, and at least 45 Iraqis were killed.

Since the war began in March 2003, 615 U.S. troops have been killed; 421 of them under hostile fire. After President Bush announced the end of major combat in May, 476 troops have died, 306 from hostile fire. Overall, 717 coalition troops have been killed, 545 of them after the president's speech.

Meanwhile in Basra, British military officials were negotiating Monday with protesters who seized the governor's office there, a British spokesman said. The protesters were described by the British as "peaceful." (Full story)

CNN's Jane Arraf, Jim Clancy, Barbara Starr, Kevin Flower and Kianne Sadeq contributed to this report.

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