Armed men fighting US-led forces in Iraq are preparing for an intense battle in the Iraqi desert town of al-Qaim.
In the face of a major US offensive to root out what US military commanders said were followers of Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi, the armed men said they would fight till the very end.
The US military says the remote desert region is a haven for foreign fighters who slip across the border along ancient smuggling routes.
But the fighters preparing to take on the US forces in al-Qaim, 320km west of Baghdad, insist there are no foreigners among them.
"We are all Iraqis," declared one fighter, his face covered with a scarf.
The six-day US offensive comes amid a surge of attacks that have killed at least 430 people since 28 April, when Iraq's first democratically elected government was announced.
Continuing violence is claiming
many innocent lives
At least nine more Iraqis were killed and 19 wounded in a series of bombings, ambushes and other attacks on Friday.
A US soldier was also killed and four others wounded when a car bomb exploded in Baiji, 250km north of Baghdad, the military said in a statement.
The new interim Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, extended Iraq's state of emergency for another 30 days on Friday, effective from 3 May. The emergency decree, which covers all of Iraq except the northern Kurdish-run areas, has been renewed monthly since it was first imposed on 7 November last year.
The US military said on Friday its forces had met little resistance since the first two days of Operation Matador, when they confronted well-organised and well-equipped armed men fighting from rooftops and inside sandbag bunkers in the town of Obaidi.
US intelligence indicates most fighters are either in hiding or have fled the region, US marine spokesman Captain Jeffrey Pool said in a statement.
But in al-Qaim, where the offensive began late on 7 May, dozens of fighters were in sight, guarding major intersections and checking vehicles at the entrance to the town.
"We are trying to protect our city's entrances, and we will prevent the US forces from entering the city," declared a fighter.
Apart from the fighters, however, streets were largely deserted, and shops and markets closed.
Thousands of people have fled al-Qaim since US warplanes and helicopter gunships pounded the region earlier this week, flattening homes and other buildings.
US troops are finding the violence
difficult to quell
"What kind of an act is that?" asked one angry resident, as he pulled a copy of the Quran from under the rubble of a mosque destroyed by US bombing.
Al-Qaim's hospital was also damaged in the shelling, and doctors tended to bloodied young men at a makeshift facility set up in a private home on Friday. The victims said a rocket slammed into them as they were standing on a bridge over the Euphrates river, killing two of them and wounding six.
American warplanes roared overhead and plumes of smoke rose from nearby villages, but al-Qaim remained calm early on Friday.
The US military confirmed two air strikes in the region, one in a cave and the other in a village west of Saada.
A day earlier, US fighter jets had destroyed a suspected safe house used by the fighters in Karabila village, after marines took fire from at least four fighters in the building, the US military said.
Roadside bombs are wreaking
havoc daily in Baghdad
The US military has confirmed five marine deaths so far and says about 100 fighters have been killed in the operation. But a reporter for The Washington Post embedded with US forces put the American toll on Thursday at seven - six of them from one squad.
Elsewhere, Iraqi army Major Murtada Yunus Hwaish was killed in a drive-by shooting in western Baghdad, the Defence Ministry said.
Earlier, snipers fired on the motorcade of Interior Ministry undersecretary, Major General Hikmat Musa Husain, killing one of his guards and wounding three others, police said. Husain escaped unharmed.
Also in western Baghdad, a 30-minute gunbattle erupted when an Iraqi police patrol came under fire, killing one officer and wounding three others, police said.
Three roadside bombs exploded in the capital, all targeting US patrols, said US military spokesman Master Sergeant Greg Kaufman. There were no immediate casualty reports. Two car bombs targeting Iraqi army patrols exploded in Baquba, 60km northeast of Baghdad.
Three people, including two soldiers, were killed and six wounded in the first attack, police said, and four soldiers sustained minor injuries in the second.
In al-Hilla, south of Baghdad, mortars slammed into an Iraqi army checkpoint, killing three soldiers and injuring three others, police said.