Iraqi militants take hostages

They were taken by a group called the Mujahideen Brigades and Arab al-Jazeera TV showed them being held at knife-point.

The gunmen holding the Japanese say they will burn their captives alive unless Japanese troops are withdrawn from Iraq.

And in another day of chaos in Iraq, two Arab Israelis were also kidnapped, but seven South Korean missionaries were released by their kidnappers.

The Japanese hostages are thought to be Noriaki Imai, an 18-year-old male volunteer worker, Nahoko Takato, 34, a female volunteer worker, and Soichiro Koriyama, a 32-year-old male freelance photojournalist.

In Tokyo, the Japanese government insisted its troops would stay in Iraq despite the threats against its citizens.

US officials have been forced to acknowledge a serious problem in trying to tame Iraq amid ferocious resistance from Sunni and Shiite insurgents who have stepped up their fight a year after Saddam Hussein was ousted last April 9.

Assessing the security situation in Iraq a year after coalition forces toppled Saddam, the commander of US-led coalition ground troops in Iraq said his forces would not be deterred in their goal to pacify the country ahead of the return of Iraqi sovereignty scheduled for June 30.

“Coalition and Iraqi security forces are conducting deliberate, precise and robust combat operations to separate, isolate and destroy the enemy wherever we find him on the battlefield,” said US Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez in Baghdad.

He said the goal was to restore order “by eliminating anti-coalition forces in Fallujah, destroying the Sadr militia in central and south provinces and continuing progress in rebuilding the infrastructure, the economy and the transition to Iraqi sovereignty.”

Sanchez added: “We will not be deterred… I am totally confident we will succeed.”

Meanwhile, fighting raged in the Sunni town of Fallujah west of Baghdad, while the militia of radical Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr militia issued an ultimatum to coalition forces to leave the holy city of Karbala, where a major religious celebration was scheduled this weekend.

Ten Iraqi insurgents and two US soldiers were killed as marines pressed an offensive to flush out insurgents who brutally murdered four US civilians security contractors last week, a military statement said.

More than 300 Iraqis have been killed in the clashes in Fallujah in the last few days, Al-Jazeera television reported, citing hospital sources. Another 500 others have been wounded, its correspondent in the besieged Sunni town said.

Separately, Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia said it was holding Spanish hostages and possibly an American. Spanish officials denied the report, and US officials said they were not aware of any coalition troops missing.

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