Rebel city in Iraq is retaken

U.S. military reclaims control over insurgent stronghold of Samarra

`Iraqis have fought, done well'

Victory is first in a series of offensives before vote

October 04, 2004|By Thomas S. Mulligan and Edmund Sanders | Thomas S. Mulligan and Edmund Sanders,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAMARRA, Iraq - U.S. military officials said yesterday that they had regained control over this insurgent stronghold 60 miles north of Baghdad, recording a significant victory in their bid to recapture rebel-held areas in Iraq before the January election.

As residents of Samarra ventured out for the first time in three days, U.S. forces launched predawn airstrikes on Fallujah, another Sunni Triangle city that has become a "no-go zone" for U.S. and Iraqi troops. The U.S. military said it killed several militants and destroyed a large cache of ammunition.

U.S. and Iraqi officials said Samarra would be the first in a series of intensive military offensives aimed at quelling resistance in rebel hot spots so that national elections can be conducted safely and with maximum Iraqi participation.

It is unclear whether Iraqi security forces can maintain control over Samarra after U.S. forces withdraw. After a U.S. offensive last fall, rebels reasserted themselves, making Samarra a no-go zone in recent months for U.S. troops.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that it would be premature to declare the Samarra operation "wrapped up."

"Clearly, the really good news out of this is that Iraqi forces have fought alongside American forces and ... they've done well," Rice told CNN's Late Edition. In previous offensives, Iraqi troops have refused to fight or have fled from insurgents.

Retired Army Col. Bob Killebrew, a former operations planner and professor of military strategy at the U.S. Army War College, said gaining control of Samarra may be a first but significant step toward ensuring that fair elections can be held across Iraq.

"To have legitimate elections, the maximum number of Iraqi people need to be free to vote," Killebrew said. "So, Samarra is important not so much because it's a city, but because a big number of Iraqi citizens live in that town and the insurgents prohibit them from participating in the political life of Iraq."

Asked whether the Samarra operation will be replicated soon in Fallujah, Ramadi, the Sadr City slum in Baghdad and other no-go zones, Rice said: "The timing on any of these efforts really is going to be taken on the ground, because that is where Iraqi and coalition decision-makers can work together to decide how much military force is used in addition to the political efforts that are there, so I wouldn't want to make a judgment on which of these areas might look like Samarra."

U.S. and Iraqi patrols encountered sporadic small-arms fire when they swept through Samarra's streets. By U.S. military estimates, 125 rebels were killed and more than 80 captured. Most of the deaths occurred early Friday in the first hours of the strike, when helicopter gunships blasted suspected rebel positions with rockets.

After two days cowering in their homes, Samarra's civilians ventured into the streets, waving white cloths. Some residents went to hospitals to identify dead relatives or visit the injured. Hospital workers began carrying out the dead for burial. Soldiers accompanied ambulances through the city to recover bodies that had been hastily buried in shallow graves in residents' yards.

"Yesterday, we closed off the city, but today we're letting some people out," said. Lt. Col. Blair Schantz, commander of the 9th Engineers Battalion.

Schantz said the Samarra operation had moved from combat to the reconstruction phase.

Still, the city remained under a tight grip. A 7 p.m.-to-7 a.m. curfew was in effect, and only women, children and teenage boys were allowed to leave town. Males of military age were restricted from leaving, to prevent insurgents from escaping.

Aid officials complained Saturday that Samarran civilians were being held under a state of siege, unable to receive medical supplies or to flee to a refugee camp established by the Iraqi Red Crescent in Ad Dawr, about 10 miles north. U.S. officers met in Tikrit with Iraqi engineers and humanitarian officials to coordinate the dispatch of a convoy into Samarra to carry blood and medical supplies.

Iraqi troops in Samarra late Saturday said they captured 24 suspected foreign fighters - 18 Sudanese, five Egyptians and one Tunisian. All were taken to Tikrit for interrogation.

Officials of the interim Iraqi government have blamed foreign militants for some of the worst violence. At the top of the list is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born guerrilla believed to be behind recent kidnappings and beheadings of Westerners working in Iraq.

Yesterday, police in Yousifiya, about 10 miles south of Baghdad, found the bodies of a decapitated man and a woman who had been shot in the head. Police said the victims appeared to be Westerners, but their identities had not been confirmed.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Killed in Iraq

As of Friday, 1,055 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations. Since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq at an end, 917 U.S. soldiers have died.

Latest identifications

Spc. Rodney A. Jones, 21, of Philadelphia died Thursday in Baghdad when a car bomb exploded near his patrol; assigned to 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division; Fort Hood, Texas.

Spc. Allen Nolan, 38, of Marietta, Ohio, died Thursday at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, of injuries suffered Sept. 18 in Balad, Iraq, when his convoy vehicle struck an explosive; assigned to the Army Reserve's 660th Transportation Company; Zanesville, Ohio. - Associated Press

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