U.S. deaths reach grim milestone
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. officials are insisting the situation in Iraq is improving despite a surge in violence that has made April the deadliest month of combat for the U.S. military since last year's invasion.
At least 73 U.S. troops have died in hostile action this month, according to the military.
An estimated 700 insurgent fighters are also thought to have been killed in the same period and there are unconfirmed reports of hundreds of civilian deaths.
Coalition commanders have denied those charges.
The new figures bring the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq to 674 -- 479 hostile and 195 non-hostile, according to the U.S. military.
The figures were released as Russian civilian workers in Iraq were taken hostage, and insurgents released kidnapped Chinese men. (Full story)
It is believed that some 30 people are now being held hostage.
American contractor Thomas Hamill, who was snatched on Friday, would "be treated worse than the four Americans that were killed in Fallujah" kidnappers warned if their demand for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the city was not met.
The mutilated bodies of four civilians were dragged through the city's streets on March 31.
Mohsen Abdel Hamid of the Iraqi Governing Council said Monday that Muslim clerics had issued a religious decree against abductions and that kidnappers may release their hostages later in the day.
"It's not business as usual, we must acknowledge that," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a U.S. Army spokesman, said Monday.
"There are people out there taking hostages and people kidnapping people."
As overseas workers prepare to leave the country, Iraqis themselves are streaming out of Fallujah while efforts to broker a full cease-fire are reportedly making slow progress.
Firefights broke out on Monday night after five Marines were wounded and insurgents attacked military supply convoys south of Baghdad, burning a shipment of armored personnel carriers.
On an airport road in west Baghdad a lightly guarded convoy was hit and looters quickly moved in to raid cargo from a crippled truck.
Coalition officials said on Monday they were trying to clear up security problems along major transit routes, with the priority being an area west of the capital where most of the hostages were taken.
They have warned that traveling without an escort was not advisable.
Meanwhile, the cities of Karbala, Najaf and Kufa are still under the control of insurgents.
An agreement that all police would return to their posts in Najaf was reached with the militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the city's police chief and an al-Sadr spokesman said Monday.
However, a coalition source close to the situation told CNN that police have negotiated the return of only three of their stations in the holy city in south-central Iraq.
Al-Sadr's armed Mehdi Army militiamen continue to patrol the streets, according to the source.
Just before police and an al-Sadr spokesman announced their agreement, militia fired mortar rounds at the coalition compound in Najaf, the source said.
The city of Kufa is also still under al-Sadr's control, Iraqi sources said.
The battle with al-Sadr's forces began earlier this month after the coalition shut down his newspaper, Al Hawza, for allegedly inciting violence, and arrested an aide on charges of complicity in the killing last year of another Shiite cleric.
An Iraqi judge has also issued a warrant for al-Sadr's arrest, and the top U.S. general in the region said that whatever happens to him is up to the Iraqis.
CNN Correspondent Jim Clancy contributed to this report