US troops clashed yesterday with Sunni insurgents west of the capital and gunmen assassinated Baghdad's deputy governor as fresh US soldiers arrived in the capital -- a move that will push US military strength in Iraq to its highest level since last summer.
An Iraqi freelance television cameraman was killed yesterday while filming skirmishes between US Marines and Iraqi insurgents in Ramadi, 110km west of Baghdad.
US artillery yesterday pounded suspected insurgent positions in Fallujah, witnesses said. US forces are gearing up for an offensive in Fallujah and other Sunni strongholds if Iraqi mediation fails to win agreement to hand over foreign Arab fighters and other militants.
US and Iraqi officials hope to curb the insurgency in time for national elections by the end of January. Voter registration for the January balloting began yesterday.
In order to provide enough security for the voting, Army units slated to depart are being held back until after the election. The delays in departures and the arrival of new units will push the total US military presence in Iraq to around 142,000.
At Camp Victory North, the sprawling headquarters of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, the mess hall and housing trailers were brimming to capacity with the arrival of the 3,700-member Louisiana-based 256th Enhanced Separate Brigade, a National Guard unit that has been rolling into Baghdad the past few days.
The arrival of the 256th was supposed to have been timed with the departure of the 1st Cavalry's 2nd Brigade, which was scheduled to prepare to return to Fort Hood, Texas, this month. But the Pentagon delayed the 2nd Brigade's departure by two months, military officials said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi warned on Sunday that efforts to resolve the standoff in Fallujah peacefully have entered their "final phase" and that his patience was running short before launching "a military solution" to the Sunni insurgents' hold over the city.
In a speech that seemed aimed at preparing the Iraqi public for an onslaught, Allawi warned of civilian casualties, saying that if he ordered an assault, it would be with a "heavy heart," because "there will be some loss of innocent lives."
"But I owe, owe it to the Iraqi people to defend them from the violence and the terrorists and insurgents," he said.
US officials say the final order for an all-out attack on Fallujah will come from Allawi. Commanders have estimated that up to 5,000 Islamic militants, loyalists of former president Saddam Hussein and common criminals are holed up there.
The rumble of strong but distant explosions echoed through central Baghdad throughout the day yesterday and the roar of US jets could be heard in the overcast skies.
Baghdad Province Deputy Gov-ernor Hatim Kamil was killed when gunmen opened fire on his car in the southern Doura neighborhood, Iraqi authorities said. Two bodyguards were also wounded in the attack, officials said.
One US Marine was killed and four others wounded on Sunday when a bomb exploded in Ramadi, one of the leading insurgent strongholds.
Heavy clashes between US forces and insurgents continued yesterday in Ramadi. One woman was killed and her two children injured during the fighting, hospital officials said.
In the city of Tikrit in Iraq's Sunni Triangle, a rocket slammed into the Sunubar Hotel late on Sunday, killing 15 Iraqis and wounding eight others, hospital officials said.