U.S. troops kill 46 attackers in central Iraq

2 convoys carrying money are hit in Samarra

battle largest since Hussein's fall

No American deaths reported

Simultaneous attacks turned back by fire from machine guns, tanks

December 01, 2003|By Mike Dorning | Mike Dorning,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. troops firing machine guns and tank rounds killed at least 46 Iraqis and wounded 18 more in clashes yesterday afternoon as two coalition convoys carrying loads of cash came under simultaneous attack in Samarra, central Iraqi, military officials said.

The convoys of tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers and Humvees were attacked with a barrage of mortars, bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles. The convoys were heading to make deliveries of newly printed Iraqi dinars at currency exchanges in Samarra as part of the coalition's phaseout of old bills bearing a portrait of former leader Saddam Hussein, a military official said.

No Americans were killed, although five U.S. soldiers and one civilian working with the coalition were wounded. None of the injuries was life-threatening, military spokesmen said.

Samarra is 60 miles north of Baghdad inside the so-called Sunni Triangle, the epicenter of the anti-American rebellion.

The Iraqi deaths are the most reported in a single battle since President Bush declared an end to major combat in May. The fighting appears to be the biggest engagement since the taking of Baghdad, but military officials cautioned they could not confirm that. The coalition generally does not report enemy casualty totals.

The coordinated attacks came on the final day of the deadliest month yet for U.S. forces since the invasion of Iraq in March. At least 79 U.S. soldiers died during November, a month in which insurgents downed several army helicopters, hit a civilian cargo plane with a missile and waged a widening campaign against American allies and Iraqis assisting with the reconstruction.

That wave of violence against U.S. allies continued yesterday as two South Korean electricians working as coalition contractors were killed while traveling in a passenger car near Tikrit. Ten other citizens of coalition partners were killed on Iraqi roads during the weekend in three incidents, including seven Spanish intelligence agents, two Japanese diplomats and one Colombian contractor.

The military also announced yesterday that two U.S. soldiers were killed and one wounded in another ambush Saturday near the Syrian border, just outside the town of Husaybah.

U.S. Army accounts suggest that open combat erupted in Samarra between American troops and what the military described as Fedayeen forces, a former militia of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The convoys were attacked by insurgents firing from vehicles, alleyways and the rooftops and windows of buildings, a military spokesman said.

In one of the battles, at least a dozen attackers armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers rushed out of a mosque, while others fired from behind the mosque's walls, a military official said.

Insurgents erected a makeshift barricade in an unsuccessful attempt to block the path of one of the convoys.

U.S. forces responded with .50-caliber machine guns, 120 mm tank rounds and 25 mm cannon fire from Bradley fighting vehicles. Three buildings were destroyed and at least two other structures damaged by tank rounds, military officials said. Armored vehicles smashed through the barricade.

The two convoys, one on the east side of the city and the other on the west side, were simultaneously attacked about 1:30 p.m. local time, said Master Sgt. Robert Cargie, a spokesman for the 4th Infantry Division, which controls the area.

Cargie said each engagement lasted "many minutes."

Many attackers were wearing the black attire of Hussein's Fedayeen fighters, Cargie said.

A military official said there was not clear evidence whether the attackers had planned the ambush as a robbery. But the official added, "That certainly seems logical. It looks like they had inside information."

An hour later, gunmen riding in a passenger car attacked a third convoy near Samarra. All four of those attackers were wounded and captured, Cargie said.

Military officials also acknowledged they are about to release a report that concludes that enemy fire probably played a role in the collision of two Army Black Hawk helicopters two weeks ago in which 17 soldiers died, the greatest number of U.S. casualties in a single incident during the Iraq campaign.

A military spokesman said the attack on the South Koreans - on a highway between Samarra and Tikrit - had no apparent link with the assaults on the convoys.

The Koreans were attacked on their way to lay transmission lines at a power distribution plant near Tikrit, said a spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry. In addition to the two Koreans killed, two were wounded.

The incident came as Spanish officials were accompanying home the bodies of seven Spanish intelligence agents killed in a highway ambush Saturday.

Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a staunch backer of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, vowed in a national address that he would not pull troops out of Iraq.

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