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AC-130 opens up after Marines, Sunni insurgents battle in Fallujah

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FALLUJAH, Iraq — A U.S. warplane fired its cannons on targets in Fallujah for a second straight night Wednesday after a day of fighting between Marines and Sunni insurgents in parts of the encircled city.

The U.S. actions brought new international condemnation, and joint patrols by Marines and Iraqi police that were to have started Thursday were delayed by a day.

The nighttime attack from an AC-130 gunship raised smoke and flames above Fallujah.

During the day, fighting broke out in at least three parts of the city. In the afternoon, U.S. forces dropped 10 laser-guided bombs — mostly 500-pound bombs and one 1,000-pound bomb — on buildings that guerrillas were firing from, Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne said.

Marine units moving into a position in southeast Fallujah came under fire, wounding one American in the shoulder, Byrne said. Warplanes were called in and dropped the laser-guided bombs, he said.

Despite three straight days of battles and nighttime attacks that produced dramatic TV video, U.S. officials said they were pushing ahead with negotiations to resolve the standoff rather than launch an all-out offensive.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said the cease-fire was continuing and Marines were not taking offensive actions but were "in a series of defensive responses" to the insurgents.

"We're going to continue to push the political track as far as it's going to take us. And if it doesn't take us far enough, we're prepared to use military means," Kimmitt told ABC's "Good Morning America."

Nevertheless, the new fighting was sharply criticized by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

"Violent military action by an occupying power against inhabitants of an occupied country will only make matters worse," Annan said. "It's definitely time — time now for those who prefer restraint and dialogue to make their voices heard."

He said that if the U.S.-led occupation is seen as harming civilians, "the greater the ranks of the resistance grows."

At the White House, President Bush said "most of Fallujah is returning to normal."

"There are pockets of resistance and our military, along with Iraqis, will make sure it's secure," he said.

But joint patrols between Marines and Iraqi police that were due to begin Thursday were delayed until Friday to allow for more training, Byrne said.

"We don't want to rush into the patrols," Byrne said. "We're doing it in a phased approach and we will have an additional day for training and the rehearsal of the Iraqi forces."

After sunrise, at least eight destroyed houses were seen in the Golan neighborhood. Hospitals reported Wednesday that only two people were wounded. Militants, however, often do not evacuate their casualties to hospitals, fearing that the injured could be arrested by American forces.

Marine Maj. Gen. John F. Sattler, director of operations for U.S. Central Command, said the Marines face an estimated 1,500 insurgents in Fallujah.

They seem to be a loose federation of Iraqis and foreigners, Saddam loyalists and jihadists, Sattler said. Officials have not identified any single leader.

The Marines' goal is not to conquer Fallujah but to "establish law and order," he said.

Also Wednesday, a senior U.S. official said investigators have recommended administrative punishment for a number of commanders at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison after allegations of abuse of prisoners there. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, would not give details on the recommended punishments or how many commanders faced action.

Six soldiers at the prison face criminal charges in connection with the abuse, Kimmitt said.

In southern Iraq, gunmen ambushed a convoy outside the city of Kut on Wednesday, killing two Ukrainian soldiers and wounding a third, U.S. and Ukrainian officials said.

Shiite militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr drove Ukrainian peacekeepers out of Kut this month, but U.S. troops later swept into the city, pushing out most of the militiamen.

American troops seek to capture al-Sadr and suppress his militia. On Wednesday, they began gradually expanding their operations out of their base in the holy city of Najaf. Soldiers set up checkpoints outside the base — the main route between the center of Najaf and the center of neighboring Kufa.

The military has promised to stay away from sacred Shiite sites at the heart of Najaf. The base is about three miles away.

Attacks across Iraq are down, compared with the first two weeks of April, as U.S. officials seek negotiated solutions in Fallujah and with al-Sadr.

In the northern city of Tel Afar, a U.S. soldier was killed in an ambush Tuesday, the military reported.

The death brought to 116 the number of U.S. troops killed in combat this month, the bloodiest for American forces in Iraq. At least 725 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. Up to 1,200 Iraqis also have been killed this month.

Saddam Hussein's 67th birthday was Wednesday, his first in U.S. detention since being captured by American troops in December. In his hometown of Tikrit, there were no apparent signs of celebration, and schools and universities were closed.

Wednesday's fighting in Fallujah came after a heavy Tuesday night battle against insurgents holed up in the northern neighborhood of Golan, a slum area of tight alleyways. AC-130 gunships and artillery pounded insurgent targets for more than an hour.

Kimmitt said the battle began when troops saw two trucks traveling with their lights off in an area where insurgents were active. The AC-130s destroyed the trucks, and ammunition in the trucks exploded, he said.

The length of the Tuesday night barrage suggested U.S. forces are seeking to wear down the insurgents in Golan.

On Monday, insurgents attacked Marines in the neighborhood, killing one American in a battle that ended when a tank destroyed a mosque's minaret from which U.S. commanders said insurgents were firing. Eight Iraqis were killed.

In Berlin, Secretary of State Colin Powell defended American firing on mosques and other holy places used by insurgents in Iraq. Rejecting criticism by U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, Powell said, "We are being very careful," but when holy places are used to shoot and kill civilians and U.S. troops, "we have an obligation to protect our men."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair also defended U.S. tactics in Fallujah, rejecting an opposition legislator's assertion that Tuesday's battle amounted to the "murder or mutilation of hundreds of women had children."

Blair said there were large numbers of well-armed insurgents in Fallujah and "it is right that the American forces try to make sure that order is restored to that city."