Fallujah, the rebel stronghold surrounded by US troops, experienced a moment's respite from large-scale clashes yesterday amid reports that the Americans were awaiting reinforcements.
The city has been the scene of a succession of strikes since it was surrounded last Thursday in a bid to regain control of the Sunni stronghold. There were 1,400 US troops in position around the city.
Part of the reinforcement will be US soldiers freed for Fallujah with the expected arrival next week of British troops from Basra to replace them.
Although no final decision had been made, it was believed that a mechanised infantry battalion of 650, the Black Watch, will move into an area covering the towns of Iskandariyah, Latifiyah and Mahmudiyah, one of the most violent flashpoints in the current insurgency.
There have been American bomb attacks on Fallujah, an industrial city in western Iraq of around 300,000 people, on an almost daily basis.
Yesterday, the chief negotiator for the city of Fallujah was freed on the orders of Iyad Allawi, Iraq's interim Prime Minister, after his arrest by the Americans on Friday.
Mr Allawi had said that he hoped peace talks could restart. But one of the first statements by Sheikh Khaled al-Jumeili after being released was to say that talks with Iraq's interim government will not be resumed as a protest at his detention. He added that three other men arrested with him, said to be the police chief of Fallujah and two of his senior officers, have not been released.
Sheikh Jumeili said: "The fact is that I'm negotiating on behalf of Fallujah people civilians, children, women who have no power apart from being represented by somebody. Since the situation has got to this, each side can go wherever they want and we don't want to talk about negotiations."
The interim government's National Security Adviser, Kassim Daoud, insisted yesterday that Fallujah will be attacked unless its people hand over the Jordanian militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Asked when the offensive will begin, he responded: "We have a plan and we will stick to it."
It also emerged yesterday that two Macedonians taken hostage by a militant group were reported to have been beheaded in Iraq yesterday. However, the first Australian kidnap victim in the country, John Martinkus, a journalist, was freed after 36 hours in captivity.
The two dead men were said to have been among a group of three Dalibor Lazarevski, Dragan Markovic and Zoran Naskovski who were seized by insurgents in August while working as builders.