Attack kills 12 Marines

NAJAF, Iraq — Anti-American violence intensified across Iraq on Tuesday, spreading to previously quiet areas of the country and leaving a dozen Marines dead in one clash.

The U.S.-led coalition was struggling to contain the strife in Sunni and Shiite Muslim areas after three days of fighting claimed the lives of 30 Americans, two other coalition troops and at least 120 Iraqis.

Some of the heaviest fighting Tuesday occurred in the Sunni Triangle city of Ramadi when insurgents attacked a Marine position near the provincial governor’s palace, killing a dozen Marines and wounding 20 more, according to a Pentagon official in Washington, D.C. The official said Marines inflicted heavy casualties on the insurgents.

Marines in tanks, Humvees and helicopters also engaged in intense battles with insurgents in the nearby besieged city of Fallujah, killing nearly three dozen Iraqis.

In southern Iraq, militants allied to Muqtada al-Sadr, a virulently anti-American Shiite cleric, staged firefights in four major cities, taking over government buildings and vowing to help end the U.S. occupation.

The uprising by Shiite militants presented a scenario long feared: a loss of control over the majority Shiites, who are considered essential to an orderly transfer of power to Iraqis on June 30.

The spreading revolt presents new worries for the Bush administration. To quell the violence, the United States may have to resort to heavy force. That could serve to consolidate anti-American sentiment and set off a cycle of retaliation.

At his ranch near Crawford, Texas, President Bush held a 20-minute telephone conference call to discuss the fast-breaking events in Iraq with top Cabinet officials including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Richard Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In Baghdad, U.S. civilian administrator Paul Bremer, while trying to play down the extent of the Shiite rebellion, suggested that the coalition’s entire mission was at stake. "The dividing line in Iraq now is the people who support democracy and the people who want to return to an Iraq where power is determined by the guy with the guns," Bremer said.

U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington said their plan for the June 30 hand-over of power remained in place. Their near-term priority is to defeat the insurgency and support Iraqis friendly to the coalition.

"There are some elements that need to be confronted; the option that cannot be considered is waiting to fight them another day," said a senior U.S. official in Baghdad.

U.S. officials acknowledged that more bloodshed might be unavoidable.

"We have more people, more power, more money than them, we will win," the senior U.S. official said. "It’s a matter of how aggressively they fight. We have to demonstrate we are committed to shutting them down."

In Nasiriyah, Italian troops attempting to seize control of three bridges over the Euphrates river from al-Sadr’s militants killed 15 Iraqis. About 12 Italian soldiers received minor injuries, a coalition spokeswoman told the Italian news agency ANSA.

Fighting in the southern city of Amarah between al-Sadr’s followers and British troops killed 15 Iraqis and wounded eight, a coalition spokesman said.

And in Kut, in south-central Iraq, a Ukrainian soldier was killed and five of his colleagues were wounded when militants attacked an armored personnel carrier, the Defense Ministry said.

By Tuesday night in Fallujah, a major U.S. offensive was under way and 500 Marines had entered the city, using tanks and helicopters to battle scores of insurgents. It marked the first major incursion since Marines surrounded the city Sunday night.

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