updated 4/28/2004 3:40:38 PM ET 2004-04-28T19:40:38

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned Wednesday that military action in Iraq was feeding the ranks of the resistance and urged U.S. authorities to do everything possible to seek a peaceful solution in the cities of Fallujah and Najaf.

As explosions and gunfire rocked Fallujah and U.S. troops began expanding operations out of their base in the holy city of Najaf, Annan called for negotiations on the ground and a concerted international effort to stabilize Iraq.

“Violent military action by an occupying power against inhabitants of an occupied country will only make matters worse,” he said. “It’s definitely time, time now, for those who prefer restraint and dialogue to make their voices heard.”

The assault against Fallujah began after U.S. troops killed 64 gunmen near Najaf.

Annan said he relayed an appeal from the community in Fallujah for the United Nations to intervene — which he said was impossible because of the lack of security — and had spoken to U.S. authorities about “the need for caution, the need to do all that is possible to avoid a violent confrontation.”

“The reason why I asked for caution is the more the occupation is seen as taking steps that harm the civilians and the population, the greater the ranks of the resistance grows,” Annan said.

“I think everybody has said the struggle really should have been to win the hearts and minds of the people, and so it has to be an effort in that direction, as well.

“It’s a difficult situation. I’m not pretending it’s very easy to do it, but I think one has to be very careful not to get it much worse.”

‘Really unimaginable consequences’
Annan expressed serious concern about the wider impact of any fighting in Najaf, a holy city for Shiite Muslims where a radical cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, reportedly is holed up. U.S. troops want to capture al-Sadr for his alleged involvement in the murder of another cleric and then suppress his militia.

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“There had been also talks going on in Najaf which we had hoped would work out, and of course our concern [is] that any assault on Najaf will have really unimaginable consequences and could complicate very much the efforts that we are trying to make in ... working with the Iraqis to establish an interim government,” Annan said.

Annan spoke to reporters a day after his special envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, told the Security Council that Iraq’s caretaker government must be chosen by May 31 so it could properly prepare to take power June 30 and reach a new agreement with U.S.-led multinational forces that would remain in control of security.

Annan said that there also was a need to work out “coordinating mechanisms” between the United Nations and the new government, and the United Nations and the multinational force, “and it’s not going to be easy.”

Brahimi told the Security Council that many obstacles to the handover remained but that it could be accomplished even in the face of weeks of deadly violence.

The caretaker government will remain in power until national elections are held by Jan. 31, but Annan stressed that “security affects everything” and elections needed “a calm environment.”

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