American-led international troops in Iraq on Wednesday were locked in the fiercest fighting since the fall of Saddam Hussein a year ago, waging a two-front war against Sunni Muslim insurgents west of Baghdad and a ferocious and fast-spreading Shiite uprising in the south and center of the country.
American forces fired rockets at a wall surrounding a mosque in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, killing more than two dozen people, news services reported, quoting witnesses who said the death toll could be as high as 40. The U.S. military said insurgents were using the mosque for a military fire base.
In response to the surge in violence, American commanders are considering whether to send more forces into Iraq, and some troops scheduled to leave soon might be kept there longer, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday.
Rumsfeld said the military had captured some of the people believed responsible for last week's killing and mutilation of four U.S. civilian security officers in Fallujah.
He denied that the violence in Iraq was spinning out of control. Rumsfeld said the violence, which has claimed nearly three dozen American lives since last weekend, is the work of a few "thugs, gangs and terrorists" and was not a popular uprising over the U.S.-led occupation.
Gen. John Abizaid, commander of American forces in the region, spoke with President Bush and his national security team via a secure video conference call Wednesday and did not ask for extra troops, a senior defense official said after the news conference. Asked if orders to go home had been put on hold, the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "Not yet."
The extent of American casualties remained unclear, though military spokesmen confirmed on Wednesday that 12 American Marines had died on Tuesday in a seven-hour assault by gunmen on an American base in the Sunni-dominated city of Ramadi, 70 miles west of the capital.
An American soldier from the 1st Armored Division was killed on Wednesday when his convoy was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade near a police station in Baghdad, a spokesman for the American military said. The military issued no other reports of American or coalition casualties on Wednesday, but news agencies reported that another American soldier was killed and one wounded during a clash in the town of Balad, near Baghdad, and that an American military helicopter was hit by gunfire and made an emergency landing in the town of Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad. A U.S. official said there were no injuries in the helicopter incident.
Since Sunday, clashes across Iraq have killed more than 30 American troops, a Ukrainian soldier, a Salvadoran soldier and more than 200 Iraqis, according to a tally compiled from accounts of witnesses, Iraqi hospital officials and American officers. Since the war began, at least 630 U.S. service members have died.
Coalition troops are facing the toughest and bloodiest test yet of their resolve to put into effect an American-backed blueprint for political transition in Iraq, highlighted by the scheduled transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government on June 30.
This week, American and Iraqi security forces encircled Fallujah, a bastion of Sunni resistance 35 miles west of Baghdad, and on Tuesday began to push inward in search of rebels and suspects connected to the killing of the four American civilians last week.
In Baghdad and southern Iraq, American and coalition troops have also been trying to suppress an uprising by Shiite insurgents inspired by the fiery exhortations of a radical cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who has rallied his followers to drive foreign troops from the country and is being sought by American and Iraqi authorities.
Al-Sadr demanded on Wednesday that the United States transfer authority to Iraqis with no connection to the occupation authority.
"I call upon the American people to stand beside their brethren, the Iraqi people, who are suffering an injustice by your rulers and the occupying army, to help them in the transfer of power to honest Iraqis," the 31-year-old cleric said in a statement issued from his office in Najaf, where he was reported to have taken refuge. "Otherwise, Iraq will be another Vietnam for America and the occupiers."
In Fallujah, U.S. Marines said they waged a six-hour battle around the Abdel-Aziz al-Samarrai mosque before calling in a Cobra helicopter that fired missiles at the base of its minaret. An F-16 dropped the laser-guided bomb, Marine Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne said.
In Kut, south of Baghdad, staunch Shiite resistance forced Ukrainian troops to withdraw from the city, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry in Kiev reported, according to news agencies. The pullout effectively ceded control of the city to al-Sadr's supporters.
And in a further indication of widening opposition to the coalition's presence, Bulgaria asked the United States to send troops to reinforce a 450-strong Bulgarian battalion in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala, where the Shiite uprising has spread.
Also in Karbala, Reuters reported that Polish troops killed an aide to al-Sadr during fighting there. The aide, Murtada al-Mussawi, ran al-Sadr's Karbala office, an Iraqi police spokesman told Reuters.
Fighting on Wednesday appeared to be heaviest in Fallujah, where overnight clashes killed 60 Iraqis and wounded more than 130, hospital officials told AP. Mosque loudspeakers broadcast calls for a holy war against Americans.
Hatem Samir, head of the clinic at Fallujah Hospital, said that 26 people, including 16 children, were killed during an American airstrike late on Tuesday, AP reported.
Contributing: Associated Press