Scores killed in fight for Iraq city

U.S., government troops battle rebels in Samarra

100 militants reported dead

Insurgents had driven Americans out of town

October 02, 2004|By Colin McMahon | Colin McMahon,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Acting on a vow to take back what a senior Iraqi leader called an "outlaw city," U.S. and Iraqi forces seized large parts of Samarra yesterday in fighting that reportedly killed at least 100 guerrillas.

An American soldier was killed and at least four were wounded, the military said, in battles that began on the city's outskirts and jumped from street to street as the Iraqi National Guard and U.S. armor and warplanes chased insurgents.

About 80 percent of the city was in U.S. and Iraqi hands by evening, the Iraqi Interior Ministry said. But fighting lasted into the night, and residents said parts of the downtown remained in dispute.

Local journalists reported seeing large numbers of casualties among the Iraqi National Guardsmen.

Samarra is one of a handful of locations that had fallen under guerrilla control and become "no-go" zones for U.S. forces. Though not as feared as the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah, Samarra is crucial to Iraqi efforts to impose stability before national elections scheduled for late January.

"We will spare no effort to clean all the Iraqi lands and cities from these criminals," said Kasim Daoud, minister of state.

Casualty counts could not be independently confirmed, though residents reported seeing many dead guerrillas.

At least 80 bodies and more than 100 wounded people were taken to Samarra General Hospital, Dr. Khalid Ahmed told the Associated Press. It was unclear how many were militants.

According to Iraqi news media, a hospital spokesman said at least 47 people were dead, among them 11 women, five children and seven elderly men.

Though smoke rose from Samarra's Golden Mosque, site of one of the holiest shrines in Shiite Islam, the U.S. military said Iraqi commandos had secured the site undamaged. They also seized 25 militant fighters and a cache of weapons at the mosque, the military said.

U.S. or Iraqi forces were in control of City Hall, a pharmaceutical factory and other installations, Daoud said.

Water and electricity were shut off to the city of more than 100,000 people as residents cowered in their homes.

Few people fled ahead of the U.S. offensive. Some residents said people stayed on to support the guerrillas, whose demand that Americans leave Iraq is popular in the Sunni city. Other residents believed a deal would be reached allowing U.S. and Iraqi forces to retake control of Samarra without bloodshed.

That approach was tried last month. American and Iraqi officials negotiated with tribal elders, and U.S. forces were welcomed back into the city center in early September. The town government was reinstalled, and Samarra was cited by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and President Bush as an example of the progress being made in Iraq.

Then a car bombing and other attacks forced U.S. and Iraqi troops to withdraw. Guerrillas again roamed the streets.

On Tuesday, men waving the black flags of Jordanian mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's followers, who have claimed responsibility for kidnappings, beheadings, car bombings and ambushes of U.S. military forces, drove though town brandishing automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

Residents and journalists said the offensive into Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, began before dawn and was led by Iraqi National Guard forces.

Backed by American armor, and with U.S. warplanes and attack helicopters providing air support, the National Guard forces advanced amid heavy fire from insurgents who had laid land mines and were firing mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms.

A CNN correspondent embedded with the 1st Infantry Division reported that an estimated 3,000 U.S. troops moved into the city and freed a Turkish construction worker being held hostage.

Analysts in the United States also suggested that an offensive into Samarra was a way to give Iraqi forces some needed combat experience before they might have to take on Ramadi and Fallujah, which Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has called "the tough one."

Pentagon officials and defense analysts have said a U.S. military offensive into difficult-to-capture cities, such as Ramadi and Fallujah, could be delayed, or avoided altogether, if Baghdad and Washington settle for partial Iraqi participation in elections in January.

The U.S. military believes many suicide bomb attacks and kidnappings are launched from the Sunni Triangle, especially out of Fallujah, which has seen weeks of "precision strikes" aimed at al-Zarqawi.

U.S. forces targeted Fallujah last night, bombing a safe house used by the al-Zarqawi network. The United States said 10 militants were there.

Fallujah residents say U.S. bombing over the past month has killed dozens of civilians; the United States says it has been careful to avoid civilian casualties and the airstrikes are wounding al-Zarqawi's group.

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