Death toll in Samarra firefight disputed

Iraqis claim 8 were killed

U.S. says 54 guerrillas died

December 02, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SAMARRA, Iraq - U.S. commanders vowed yesterday that the killing of as many as 54 insurgents in this central Iraqi town would serve as a lesson to those fighting the United States, but Iraqis disputed the death toll and said anger against the United States would only rise.

Accounts of a three-hour battle fought in the alleys and streets of Samarra on Sunday diverged radically, with Iraqis claiming only eight people had been killed, several of them civilians.

At the morgue, Adnan Sahib Dafar, 52, an ambulance driver, pointed to a dead woman on a steel tray. The woman, he said, had walked into the cross fire between U.S. forces and Iraqi guerrillas that began with an attempted ambush of a U.S. military convoy.

"Is this woman shooting a rocket-propelled grenade?" he demanded. "Is she fighting?" There was only one other body, that of a gray-bearded old man, in the morgue.

It appeared from the anger among Iraqis in Samarra that the United States faces a fundamental dilemma: As it increases the pressure on the insurgents who are killing Americans and Iraqis in growing numbers, the very Iraqis it is trying to win over may be alienated.

"If I had a gun, I would have attacked the Americans myself," said Satar Nasiaf, 47, a shopkeeper who said he watched two Iraqi civilians fall to U.S. fire. "The Americans were shooting in every direction."

While U.S. commanders said the Iraqi body count came from precise reports filed immediately after a close-range battle, hospital officials said yesterday that they could account for, at most, eight dead, with most of those probably civilians.

The commanders said they were not surprised by the dearth of corpses. They do not routinely collect the enemy's dead from the battlefield, the Americans said, and the guerrillas they were fighting were unlikely to bring their dead to the city's morgues.

The Pentagon typically does not publicize the number of enemy dead or wounded to avoid comparisons to the frequent enemy body counts in the Vietnam War that ultimately proved to be a poor indicator of U.S. military performance.

But after weeks of suffering casualties from an enemy that detonates roadside bombs from afar and launches mortar strikes under cover of darkness, U.S. military officials seemed to relish the opportunity yesterday to claim credit for dealing the fighters a punishing blow.

"They got whacked, and won't try that again," said one senior military official in Washington. The Pentagon insisted the body count was accurate.

The fight began when two U.S. convoys that carry cash to two banks here rumbled into this hard-line Baathist city Sunday with tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and armored Humvees. Such convoys had been attacked before, and the Americans were ready.

As if on cue, the guerrillas attacked, but according to U.S. commanders, the Iraqis suffered a devastating defeat. The battle ended, they said, with as many as 54 insurgents dead and only five Americans wounded. The battle was the largest since May 1, when President Bush declared major combat over, and the guerrilla war began.

"We didn't have the immediate intelligence that we knew it would happen, but we had to be prepared for it," said Col. Fred Rudesheim, who oversees the city. "And our soldiers responded as they have been trained to, with the immediate action that they know to take."

Saying he had not seen any reports of civilian dead, Rudesheim contended that battles such as this one would more probably win the support of ordinary Iraqis.

"Attacks, in our view, are attacks against freedom-loving Iraqis that want to move on with life, versus those that are trying to drag them back to something akin to the former regime," he said. "What we hear is that the people of Samarra are fed up."

But many different emotions were on display here yesterday. Outside the hospital, a small crowd of Iraqis gathered around a bus they said had been destroyed in the fighting and began chanting an old refrain: "Our souls and our blood, we sacrifice to you, Saddam."

The guerrilla war claimed another American life yesterday, in another of Saddam Hussein's strongholds, Habbaniya. A U.S. soldier was killed when his convoy came under attack. He was the 187th U.S. soldier to die in Iraq since May 1.

Killed in Iraq

The latest identifications of American military personnel killed in Iraq as reported by the Department of Defense:

Army Staff Sgt. Stephen A. Bertolino, 40, Orange, Calif., was killed Saturday when his convoy came under attack in Haditha, Iraq; assigned to 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, Fort Carson, Colo.

Spc. Aaron J. Sissel, 22, Tipton, Iowa, was killed Saturday when his convoy came under attack in Haditha, Iraq; assigned to the Army National Guard, Centerville, Iowa.

Associated Press

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