Najaf, Iraq Anti-American violence intensified across Iraq on Tuesday, spreading to previously quiet areas of the country and leaving a dozen Marines dead in one clash.
The U.S.-led coalition was struggling to contain the strife in Sunni and Shiite Muslim areas after three days of fighting claimed the lives of 30 Americans, two other coalition troops and at least 120 Iraqis.
Some of the heaviest fighting Tuesday occurred in the Sunni Triangle city of Ramadi when insurgents attacked a Marine position near the provincial governor's palace, killing a dozen Marines and wounding 20 more, according to a Pentagon official in Washington. The official said Marines inflicted "heavy casualties" on the insurgents, but offered no details.
Marines in tanks, Humvees and helicopters also engaged in intense battles with insurgents in the nearby besieged city of Fallujah, killing nearly three dozen Iraqis.
In southern Iraq, militants allied to Muqtada al-Sadr, a virulently anti-American Shiite cleric, staged firefights in four major cities, taking over government buildings and vowing to help end the U.S. occupation.
The uprising by Shiite militants presented a scenario long feared: a loss of control over the majority Shiites, who are considered essential to an orderly handover of power to Iraqis on June 30.
White House worries
The spreading revolt presents new worries for the Bush administration. To quell the violence, the United States may have to resort to heavy force. That could serve to consolidate anti-American sentiment and set off a cycle of retaliation.
At his ranch near Crawford, Texas, President Bush held a 20-minute telephone conference call to discuss the fast-breaking events in Iraq with top Cabinet officials including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, national security adviser Condoleeza Rice and Gen. Richard Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Bush "received an update about the offensive military action" in Fallujah and other parts of Iraq and was told that U.S. and coalition troops were "performing well," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.
He said Bush, who is scheduled to stay at his ranch until Monday, would receive updates "as warranted."
'Shutting them down'
In Baghdad, U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III, while trying to play down the extent of the recent Shiite rebellion, suggested that the coalition's entire mission was now at stake. "The dividing line in Iraq now is the people who support democracy and the people who want to return to an Iraq where power is determined by the guy with the guns," Bremer said in an interview on NBC's "Today."
U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington said their plan for the June 30 handover remained in place. Their near-term priority is to defeat the insurgency and support Iraqis friendly to the coalition.
"There are some elements that need to be confronted, the option that cannot be considered is waiting to fight them another day," said a senior U.S. official in Baghdad.
U.S. officials acknowledged that more bloodshed might not be avoidable.
"We have more people, more power, more money than them, we will win," the senior U.S. official said. "It's a matter of how aggressively they fight. We have to demonstrate we are committed to shutting them down."
Rivals praise each other
During the past several days, radical Sunni and Shiite groups -- former rivals -- have praised one another's attacks on coalition troops and vowed to stand shoulder to shoulder against the occupation.
So far the only Iraqis to stand with the coalition are members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, who in a news conference Tuesday said they were resolute about cracking down on Sunni and Shiite militants.
News of the dozen Marine deaths came from Washington where a defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States suffered the casualties in a guerrilla uprising in Ramadi, west of Baghdad.
"There's been a number of casualties this week, and that's because we're conducting offensive operations," the official said.
The United States unsealed a warrant for al-Sadr's arrest earlier this week, saying he bore responsibility for the killing of a rival cleric last April.
Al-Sadr, who was holed up at a mosque in Kufa, moved overnight Monday to Najaf, and took refuge in the Imam Ali shrine. The move appeared calculated to heighten his profile among Shiites for whom Najaf is the most holy city in Iraq.
Al-Sadr supporters established an armed presence at the police stations and hospitals and set up checkpoints at the entrance to the city. One police officer, who asked not to be identified, said al-Sadr's men "controlled all police stations, and they took our arms and our vehicles. They told the police to come to work and some of us were given al-Sadr badges to put on."
Break in ranks
Al-Sadr addressed the faithful in the Imam Ali shrine, describing himself as the "fighting arm" of the senior Shiite cleric in the country, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
Sistani, who is beloved by the majority of Shiites, has called for calm and urged Iraqis to resist taking up arms against the occupation.
Al-Sadr's aides made clear that their leader had no intention of heeding Sistani's call for restraint.
"The issue now is bigger than one that can be solved by a statement from Sistani," said Al-Sadr's deputy, Sheikh Quais Al-Khazaali. "It now involves the bloodshed of innocent people, it has become a people's war. The Americans should withdraw, because losses on their part are going to be too big," he said.
By Tuesday night in Fallujah, a major U.S. offensive was under way and 500 Marines had entered the city, using tanks and helicopters to battle scores of insurgents. It marked the first major incursion since Marines surrounded the city Sunday night.
Although no Marines were killed Tuesday in Fallujah, three were wounded by enemy fire. One Marine died Monday in a gunfight. Four others were killed elsewhere in the province, according to a Marine statement released Tuesday.