Local leaders in the insurgent-held city of Fallujah said Wednesday that they were continuing to negotiate with Iraq's interim government on a possible handover of the city to Iraqi troops, but townspeople reported that insurgents and foreign military forces appeared to be preparing for battle.
A U.S. military convoy of at least 40 armored vehicles was seen moving toward Fallujah, while British troops in southern Iraq headed north to plug any gaps that an offensive on the city might create. At the same time, members of the Shura Council of Mujaheddin, which governs Fallujah, told residents who had not already fled the city to leave before what they described as "the last big battle" with U.S.-led forces.
"I told them I can't because I don't have the money or place to go," said Talal Abed, 57, a Fallujah municipal employee. "They insisted."
Abed said a council member gave him the equivalent of about $35 to rent a room or house outside the city. "They also stopped a taxi for me to take my family and leave today," he said.
The continuing talks between the shura council and the Iraqi government are aimed at avoiding a full-scale assault on the city, which insurgents have controlled since April. U.S. warplanes have been staging airstrikes in Fallujah for weeks, pounding targets reportedly linked to the network of Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian guerrilla. The U.S. government has accused Zarqawi and his loyalists of engineering many of the deadliest attacks in Iraq in recent months and has offered a $25 million reward for his capture or death.
Earlier this month, local insurgent leaders voted overwhelmingly to accept broad conditions set by the Iraqi government, including demands that they eject foreign fighters from the city, turn over all heavy weapons, dismantle illegal checkpoints and allow the Iraqi National Guard to enter the city. In turn, the insurgents set their own conditions, which included a halt to U.S. attacks on the city and acknowledgment by the military that women and children have been among the casualties in U.S. strikes.
Ibrahim Jafari, one of Iraq's two vice presidents, said Wednesday that "negotiations continue, and we hope to find a peaceful solution. If not, the government will have no choice but to deal with it by the military option."
Jafari said the main impediment to a negotiated settlement remains the presence of foreign guerrillas, who refuse to stop fighting despite the stated desire of many local insurgents to make a deal with the Baghdad government and prepare for elections promised for January.
"The most dangerous thing in Fallujah is the existence of foreign fighters," Jafari said in an interview. "This wasn't so in Najaf. It makes the people in Fallujah less unified, which makes the military option more likely to be necessary. We don't hope to use the military option, but the political calculation is not in our hands."
The British government agreed last week to shift more than 800 troops from southern Iraq to areas near Baghdad, which would free U.S. forces in and around the capital to move on insurgent-held areas. Britain has 8,500 troops in Iraq, most of them around the southern city of Basra.
In other developments, a U.S. soldier was killed Wednesday in a suicide attack in central Iraq that also wounded another soldier, the military said in a statement. The name of the slain soldier was withheld pending notification of next of kin.
In Baghdad, a senior Iraqi Foreign Ministry official who once served as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates was killed in what may have been a botched kidnapping attempt, the Associated Press reported.
Qusai Mahdi Saleh was driving to his home in northern Baghdad when four men stopped his car and tried to force him from the vehicle, said Labeed M. Abbawi, the deputy foreign minister.
Elsewhere in Baghdad, gunmen killed a senior Iraqi politician, the Reuters news agency reported. Mohammad Ayash, head of the Iraqi National Congress in western Iraq, was killed Tuesday as he left his home, said Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for the party. "They know who to kill. Mohammad was widely respected for a family history of opposition to Saddam Hussein. He was from Fallujah and well connected there," Qanbar said.
An Iraqi television anchorwoman, Leqaa Abdul Razzaq, was killed by gunmen Wednesday as she traveled by taxi to her home in southeastern Baghdad, said an official at al-Sharqiyah television where she worked.
Abdul Razzaq had worked for the U.S.-funded al-Iraqiya television network until about a month ago. Her husband was murdered about two months ago, Salah Askary, a news director at the station, told the Associated Press.
In the city of Khalis, about 40 miles north of Baghdad, three Iraqi civilians were wounded Wednesday when a car bomb exploded near a convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles, which are widely used by foreign contractors.
The al-Jazeera satellite television network aired a videotaped plea by a kidnapped British aid worker Wednesday, urging Britain to withdraw its troops from Iraq. Margaret Hassan, 59, who was abducted Oct. 19, also pleaded for the release of women prisoners held by U.S.-led forces.
The U.S. military said a weapons buyback program in Baghdad's volatile Sadr City slum ended with mixed results. The program, which ran from Oct. 13 to Oct. 22, collected thousands of AK-47 assault rifles, antitank mines, rocket-propelled grenade launders and other arms, the military said in a statement. The military did not report the value of cash vouchers given out in exchange for the weapons.
Special correspondent Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report.