BAGHDAD, Iraq –
The fighting Wednesday in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, wounded 14 U.S. servicemen, but none sustained life threatening injuries and 10 have returned to duty, according to a Marine statement.
In Baghdad (search), insurgents battled with U.S. soldiers on Haifa Street, the scene of another gunbattle earlier this month, according to an unidentified hospital official interviewed by Associated Press Television News. Two Iraqis were reported wounded.
Interior Ministry official Sabah Khadum said Iraqi police and intelligence forces arrested 200 people, including several "non-Iraqi Arabs," during the Haifa Street operation and discovered a huge cache of weapons. U.S. and Iraqi officials have long complained of fighters entering Iraq from neighboring countries to battle coalition forces.
Meanwhile Thursday, Indian officials in Baghdad were working with Egypt and Kenya to free seven of their nationals whose kidnapping was announced Wednesday, an Indian official said from New Delhi on condition of anonymity.
The group that captured the seven said it would behead a captive every 72 hours beginning Saturday night if their countries do not announce their intentions to withdraw troops and citizens from Iraq and warned that every Kuwaiti company dealing with Americans "will be dealt with as an American."
The threat came two days after the Philippines withdrew its 51-troop contingent from Iraq, giving in to the demands of militants holding a Filipino truck driver. The driver, Angelo dela Cruz, returned to the Philippines on Thursday, two days after his release.
Iraqi and U.S. officials had warned of a potential surge in threats and hostage-taking when the Philippines withdrew its troops. Egypt, Kenya and India are not part of the 160,000-member U.S.-led coalition; however, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi appealed last week to India and Egypt to send in troops.
The daylong clashes in Ramadi began after insurgents detonated a roadside bomb near a Marine convoy at about 3 p.m. on Wednesday in an ambush attempt. Between eight and 10 Iraqi fighters then attacked the Marines with small arms and rocket propelled grenades.
"This initial skirmish led to ensuing engagements that pitted elements of the (U.S. Marines) 1st Brigade Combat team ... against what is being estimated as at least 75-100 AIF," the statement said.
Backed U.S. warplanes, the American ground forces clashed with the insurgents for hours, during which the Marines also safely detonated two homemade bombs, including one placed in a car.
The statement said 25 insurgents died in the fighting and another 17 were wounded.
Ramadi is located in Anbar Province, a Sunni-dominated area west of the Iraqi capital which has been a hotbed of anti-coalition insurgency.
Marines spokesman Lt. Col. T.V. Johnson said the situation in Ramadi was "relatively quiet" Thursday and that "Marines continue to operate from bases within the city, as they have since arriving early this year."
Ramadi shopkeepers were seen shuttering their stores Thursday, apparently in fear of more clashes.
"We were told by the opposition (insurgents) to close our shops and leave the area because there would be fighting in the market," said Mohammed Medhat, the owner of a grocery store in Ramadi's central market area. "I'm a father. I need to earn money to feed my children. We can't keep living with this fighting."
There were no immediate reports of U.S. deaths Thursday. On Wednesday, the death toll of American troops in Iraq since the start of the war rose to 900 after a roadside bomb north of Baghdad killed one U.S. 1st Infantry Division soldier.
India on Thursday called for the swift release of the three Indian truck drivers captured with the three Kenyans and one Egyptian, saying the three had nothing to do with the war. A militant group calling itself "The Holders of the Black Banners" took responsibility for their capture.
"We are in touch with authorities in Baghdad and Kuwait and are making all efforts to ensure an early and safe release of the hostages," Indian External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh said in Islamabad, Pakistan. "The hostages are noncombatants, and I appeal to all those who have influence to assist in ensuring the safe return home of these innocent people."
Rana Abu-Zaineh, manpower planning manager of the KGL Transport Company confirmed from Kuwait that seven employees from the company had been kidnapped in Iraq.
"The most important thing for KGL is that the seven people arrive here safely and talk to their relatives, whatever that takes," she told the AP in Kuwait without elaborating.
In photos provided to AP, six of the hostages were shown standing behind three seated, masked gunmen. One hostage held a paper with the typed names of seven men, their nationalities and personal details.
The names written were Ibrahim Khamis, Salm Faiz Khamis, Jalal Awadh, all from Kenya; Antaryami, Tilak Raj, Sukdev Singh, all from India; and Mohammed Ali Sanad, from Egypt.
In a video broadcast on the Arab-language television station Al-Arabiya, a hostage identifying himself as Sanad called on his company to pull out of Iraq.
"They will chop off our heads," he said. "Who will feed my family, my brothers and sisters?"
The threat to behead the hostages — and separate warnings against Bulgarian, Polish and Japanese troops — is the latest development in a violent campaign to scare off foreigners, who play a vital role in supporting the new U.S.-backed government and in the reconstruction of Iraq.
More than 60 foreigners have been taken hostage in recent months in Iraq, where thousands of foreigners toil as contract workers for coalition forces, in crucial reconstruction jobs or as truck drivers hauling cargo for private companies.