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Rumsfeld: Troop return home delayed

Iranian diplomat shot dead in Baghdad

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: "We're engaged in a test of will. We will meet that test."

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- About 20,000 U.S. troops in Iraq will stay an extra 90 days to maintain combat strength amid battles that have killed at least 90 American service members this month, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday.

The troops, about of quarter of whom are members of the Reserves and National Guard, were scheduled to return to the United States and Europe after a year in the country, Rumsfeld said.

"The country is at war, and we need to do what is necessary to succeed," he said.

The announcement came as U.S. and allied troops battled insurgents south and west of Baghdad and Army troops were poised to move against followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf.

Elsewhere, Marines battled Sunni fighters in Fallujah, west of the capital in the Sunni Triangle.

Rumsfeld said the recent uprisings have been contained "because we have the extra troops there."

Most of the soldiers being kept in Iraq are from the 1st Armored Division, based in Germany, and the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, based at Fort Polk, Louisiana, said Gen. Peter Pace, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

The Pentagon had planned to send those units home as replacements assumed their duties, leaving about 115,000 American troops in Iraq.

Their retention means the number of U.S. troops in Iraq would be about 137,000, Rumsfeld said.

If that level of force is needed after the additional 90 days, other units will be brought in to replace them, he said.

"We're engaged in a test of will. We will meet that test," he said. "A small band of terrorists are not going to be permitted to determine the fate of the 25 million Iraqi people."

Killings and kidnappings

An Iranian diplomat in Baghdad was shot and killed Thursday, Iranian Embassy officials said, a day after Iran said the United States requested Iranian help to defuse violence in Iraq.

Khalil Naimi, first deputy of the Iranian Embassy in Iraq, was killed near the embassy in the Salhiya neighborhood, the embassy said.

Iran is a nation of mostly Shiite Muslims that has important links in Iraq, where Shiites account for about 60 percent of the population.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Wednesday that after receiving a letter passed along by U.S. representatives, a delegation would go to Iraq Thursday to survey the situation and attempt to contact local leaders.

Insurgents have increasingly turned to abductions of foreign civilians in an attempt to break the U.S.-led coalition.

At least three dozen people from more than a dozen countries have been abducted in recent weeks, the bulk of whom were held briefly and released.

Three Japanese hostages kidnapped last week were released Thursday, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said, but it was investigating reports that two more of its citizens have been kidnapped. (Full story)

Despite the execution of an Italian hostage by insurgents, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi said his country would not back down from its mission in Iraq.

"They have broken a life, they have not cracked our values and our desire for the peace," Berlusconi said in a statement.

The kidnappers have threatened to kill three other Italians they were holding if Rome does not withdraw its 2,700 troops from Iraq. Full story

Berlusconi's office said a top diplomat was being sent on an urgent mission to Iraq to try to secure the release of the remaining Italians.

The killing of the Italian man marked the first time a hostage has been confirmed to have been executed.

Senior coalition military officials said they suspected former senior members of the Iraqi military and intelligence services for the abductions. The FBI was involved in the search for the six people believed to be still held -- the three Italians, an American and two Arabs. (Full story)

Marines: Insurgents use mosques, ambulances

U.S. Marines -- trying to hold a shaky cease-fire in Fallujah while negotiations between Iraqi authorities and insurgents continued -- said Thursday that "terrorist forces" have been using "ambulances to transport weapons."

The 1st Marine Division said Marines witnessed "an ambulance back up to a mosque in Fallujah. Occupants from the vehicle subsequently carried weapons into the mosque.

"In a similar incident, another ambulance parked in front of a building and weapons were taken inside the structure."

The executed Italian hostage was identified as Fabrizio Quattrocchi.

Marines pointed out that although "mosques, ambulances and hospitals are protected under Geneva Convention agreements and are not targeted by U.S. Marines," they will be targeted if they are used for hostile intent.

Rumsfeld said he talked to U.S. Central Command head Gen. John Abizaid who said "the challenge in Fallujah is being contained."

"It is not over and it will end" with the vanquishing of insurgents terrorizing the populace, Rumsfeld said.

But in Baghdad, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters authorities have a wait-and-see stance toward the talks in Fallujah, and he said the military will need to be ready to fight again if it has too.

Myers said Saddam regime remnants and foreign fighters attacked Marines during the cease-fire.

"The Marines are obeying the cease-fire, but they're being fired upon. They can return fire in self-defense, which they do, but they're trying their best to follow the rules of the cease-fire," Myers said.

Marines found a weapons cache that included a ready-to-fire SA-7 missile, two Russian sniper rifles with scopes, 23 mm anti-aircraft ammunition, four 155 mm artillery rounds rigged as a bomb, rocket launchers, and nine 85 mm rockets.

Report: Insurgents could be allying

Ninety Americans have been killed in Iraq this month. The latest was a soldier killed Wednesday in a roadside bombing near Samarra. That brought the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq since the war began to 691.

To the south, U.S. forces massed outside Najaf, where al-Sadr is holed up surrounded by his militia.

Some of the U.S. troops who gathered around Najaf Thursday.

Myers reported progress against the al-Sadr rebellion, which triggered more than a week of confrontations between his outlawed militia, the Mehdi Army, and coalition troops in several southern Iraq towns and the Sadr City area of Baghdad, named for the young cleric's father, who was slain by the Saddam regime.

Late Thursday night, three or four mortar rounds were fired at a compound outside Najaf where troops from Spain and El Salvador are deployed, causing no damage or injuries, a spokesman for the Spanish multinational force said.

U.S. commanders have said they want to capture or kill al-Sadr. He is wanted by an Iraqi court in the killing of a rival cleric.

With the exception of Najaf, conditions in the southern cities where al-Sadr's militia faced coalition forces were "stable" and similar to those that existed before fighting began with his Mehdi Army, Myers said.

"This was not a Shiite uprising," Myers said, pointing to what he said were the small numbers of militia fighters. "This was not a popular resistance to the coalition."

But a French journalist freed after four days in captivity said Thursday that Shiite followers of al-Sadr were working with Saddam loyalists and Sunni Islamic extremists to kidnap civilians.

"They are all interconnected, they all know each other, " Alexandre Jordanov said. "They don't share the same views, but they have a common enemy, and it's the American occupation."

Jordanov, who works for the French TV network Capa, said that during his four days as a hostage he was shuffled between the various insurgency groups and moved to 10 different locations.

"They would often stop at every road intersection or every village. They would know people that were not necessarily from their side, but they would all know each other, and they all seemed to be very united in the resistance of Iraq," he said.

A group calling itself Al Mujahedeen Brigades has distributed a leaflet warning Baghdad residents to stay indoors for the next week, because it planned to move its insurgency to the Iraqi capital.

The leaflet reads, "Our people in Baghdad, we are asking you to stay at home, do not go to the schools and universities, do not go to the markets. We are asking the owners of shops to close their shops from 15 April till 23 April because your brothers the Mujahedeen in Ramadi, Khaldiyah and Fallujah will bring the fire of the resistance to the capital with the help of our brothers the Mujahedeen in Al-Mehdi Army to liberate you from the occupation. This is a warning."

Baghdad mosques have called for a general strike this week.

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