An airborne assault on a mosque killed at least 40 worshippers attending prayers in the city of Fallujah yesterday as US-led occupation forces lost control of large parts of Iraq.
American attack helicopters and fighter aircraft supported Marines as they stormed Fallujah 30 miles west of the capital. The aircraft fired a rocket and a bomb into the compound of the Abdul-Aziz al-Samarrai mosque.
Witnesses said the attack came as worshippers gathered for afternoon prayers. Improvised hospitals were set up in private homes to treat the wounded and prepare the dead for burial.
US Marines on the roads leading in and out of Fallujah were turning back all vehicles yesterday including ambulances. Anyone trying to reach the city, which has a population of 300,000, hit a dead end. Two Iraqis sitting half-concealed close to a US road-block at al-Haswa said: "You can't reach the city. The Americans have closed it off. Don't let them see you talking to us or we will be arrested."
Overall civilian casualties in Fallujah are not known but 16 children and eight women were reported to have been killed when US aircraft hit four houses on Tuesday, according to Hatem Samir, an official at Fallujah hospital.
The US and its allies are now engaged in a two-front war with the Sunni Muslim militants in Fallujah and Ramadi, ,as well as the Shia in the south.
Though US soldiers said they had reached the centre of Fallujah, most of the city still appeared to be under the control of guerrillas.
By last night, the troops which triumphantly overthrew Saddam Hussein a year ago this week, had been driven from five Iraqi cities after heavy fighting. Allied Forces were under attack at both ends of the country.
Abu Hussam, an elderly man in the village of al-Haswa just east of Fallujah, said: "We were pleased when the Americans overthrew Saddam's miserable regime but today our lives are worse than they were when he ruled in Baghdad." He said he hoped the insurgents would win.
This week has seen the heaviest fighting since the end of the war, with the US losing 33 in three days. At least 150 Iraqis have died west of Baghdad alone, not counting those who died at the mosque yesterday.
Large parts of southern Iraq have slipped out of their control as Allied forces come under attack from militiamen of the Army of the Mahdi which is loyal to Muqtada Sadr, the young Shia cleric who the US says it intends to arrest.
In the city of Kut on the Tigris river south of Baghdad, the Army of the Mahdi appeared to be in control after gun battles that forced Ukrainian soldiers stationed there to leave. A Ukrainian soldier and a British citizen working for a security company were reported killed as well as twelve Iraqis. Muqtada Sadr has taken refuge in the Shia holy city of Najaf which is now under the control of his men. It is the home city of Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shia cleric, but he does not have his own militia. Mr Sadr's men have also taken Kufa south of Najaf.
US commanders were declaring yesterday that they would arrest Mr Sadr and destroy the Army of the Mahdi, the black-clad militiamen who support him. But it is doubtful if the US has the military forces in Iraq, numbering some 130,000 men, to do so. They would have to call in reinforcements and even that might not be enough.
The US army was already having difficulty in coping with the Sunni guerrillas north and west of Baghdad. Many of the Allied troops in the Shia cities of the south are from countries such as Poland, Spain, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Italy which wanted to show their loyalty to the US, but did not expect to find themselves in serious fighting.
So many incidents are happening that many are either not being reported or only scant details are available.
The confrontation with Mr Sadr appears to have been deliberately started by Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, when he closed down Mr Sadr's newspaper and arrested one of his chief aides. He may not have expected such a violent response.
Although Mr Sadr controls three important cities in southern Iraq, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the US military deputy commander, said: "If he wants to calm the situation, he can turn himself in to an Iraqi police station and face justice."
A dangerous ingredient in the present crisis is that it is taking place during an important Shia festival, known as Arbain, the 40th day of mourning on the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein. Many black-clad pilgrims with green flags are on the roads walking to Karbala that US soldiers mistake for supporters of Mr Sadr.
As events in Iraq continue to rage out of US control, any hope that Washington may have had of seeing a slowing down of violence before the handover of sovereignty to Iraqis on 30 June is fast disappearing.
Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, has already helpfully pointed out that all authority over the military in Iraq will remain with the US army even after the power-shift.