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Iraqi Gunmen Threaten Lives Of Three Japanese Hostages

The New York Times -- BAGHDAD, Iraq

As U.S. troops battled Sunni Muslim insurgents in Fallujah and others began deploying south to challenge insurgents who have seized control of three major Shiite cities, insurgents kidnapped several foreign civilians Thursday and threatened to execute them.

Three Japanese civilians appeared in a video broadcast on the Al-Jazeera news channel blindfolded, while their black-garbed captors threatened them with guns, knives and swords.

A statement by a previously-unknown group calling itself the Mujahideen Brigades gave Japan three days to withdraw its 550-man troop contingent from Iraq before the hostages, a man and a woman in Iraq as aid workers, and a male journalist, would be killed. In Tokyo, the chief Cabinet secretary, Yasuo Fukuda, called the abductions “unforgiveable”, but said they did not justify a Japanese withdrawal.

As the war took a menacing turn, Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, visited Baghdad and declared that he would use all necessary force to quell the insurgency sweeping the country.

Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, is enduring the heaviest fighting since U.S.-led forces swept across the country and captured Baghdad a year ago on Friday. Accounts by reporters accompanying U.S. Marine units said they were fighting street-to-street on Thursday, taking heavy rocket, mortar and small arms fire from factories, homes and mosques.

Two U.S. soldiers were killed on Thursday, according to the Central Command, raising the number of U.S. troops killed in less than a week of fighting to nearly 40. Reports from Fallujah hospitals suggested that more than 289 Iraqis had been killed, although that figure could not be independently confirmed.

In an interview at the U.S. command’s headquarters in a complex of lakeside palaces near Baghdad airport, Abizaid gave a stark warning for the Iraqi fighters, from the minority Sunni as well as the majority Shiite populations, who have changed the landscape of the war dramatically since the the ambush last week of four American security guards in Fallujah.

“First, we are going to win,” Abizaid said, seated at a table in a marbled palace hall alongside Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the U.S. field commander in Iraq. “Secondly, everyone needs to understand that there is no more powerful force assembled on earth than this military force in this country that’s backed up with our naval and air forces in near proximity.”

In a message directed at the insurgent leaders in Fallujah and at Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who has led the Shiite insurrections across southern Iraq, Abizaid added: “The fact that we have been so judicious in the use of this force should not be lost on anybody. This country will not suffer intimidation by the United States of America. But those who oppose moving democracy forward will have to pay the consequences if they don’t cease and desist.”

Abizaid said that in his discussions with Sanchez and with Washington, “everything is on the table,” including accelerating the return to Iraq of the 3rd Infantry Division, whose troops led the capture of Baghdad last year before being rotated home.

“There’s all sorts of combinations and permutations,” he said. “And you need to say that, because the decisions have not been made.”