SAMARRA, Iraq - U.S. and Iraqi forces battled their way into the heart of this Sunni stronghold Friday and moved house to house in search of militants in what appeared to be the first major offensive to regain control of areas lost to insurgents before the January elections.
More than 100 guerrillas were killed and 37 captured, according to an Iraqi official. The military said one American soldier was killed and four were wounded.
Backed by warplanes and tanks, some 5,000 troops swept in to seize the city hall, the main mosque and other important sites in Samarra, leaving only pockets of resistance after more than 12 hours of combat, according to the U.S. military and Iraqi authorities.
The city appeared calm late Friday except for American snipers on rooftops firing at anybody appearing in the streets below. Troops ordered residents to stay inside and announced a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew. Water and electricity services were severed.
U.S. forces also clashed with insurgents in Baghdad, where warplanes and tanks attacked militants in the vast slum of Sadr City. A hospital director said 12 Iraqis were killed and 11 were wounded. The U.S. military, which maintains casualties are often exaggerated by Iraqi hospital sources, said only one armed insurgent was killed.
Late Friday, a U.S. airstrike flattened two houses in the insurgent-held city of Fallujah, according to Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein, who said he saw a number of bodies, including those of women and children. A hospital doctor said the strike killed five Iraqi civilians and wounded 11 others. American military spokesmen in Baghdad said they had no information on the attack, but the U.S. command says it has been launching "precision strikes" against suspected terrorist hideouts in Fallujah.
The Americans said they conducted the operation in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, at the request of the Iraqi government. The attack appeared to trumpet the launch of major military operations to wrest other areas of the country from insurgents ahead of general elections.
U.S. military officials have signaled they plan to increase incursions into key Iraqi cities this fall - partly as a way for the United States to try to pressure insurgents into negotiations with Iraqi officials. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld alluded to this last week when he said insurgencies in Fallujah and the city of Ramadi can be solved either diplomatically through negotiations, or through force.
Also on the list for U.S. military commanders is Sadr City, scene of almost daily clashes and U.S. airstrikes against armed followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
While Sadr City remains a bastion of Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims, Ramadi, Samarra and Fallujah form part of the Sunni heartland, where resistance to the U.S.-backed government has been the fiercest. It is feared that inability to stage balloting in the so-called Sunni Triangle would severely mar, or even invalidate, election results.
Analysts in the United States said an offensive into Samarra was also a way to give Iraqi forces some needed combat experience training before they might have to take on Ramadi and Fallujah, which Secretary of State Colin Powell last week called "the tough one."
But both Pentagon officials and defense analysts have said a U.S. military offensive into difficult-to-capture cities, like Ramadi and Fallujah, might still be delayed, or avoided altogether, if Baghdad and Washington decide to settle for partial Iraqi participation in elections in January.
The U.S. military believes many suicide bomb attacks and kidnappings are launched from Sunni Triangle, especially out of Fallujah, which has seen weeks of "precision strikes" aimed at followers of Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
"We will spare no effort to clean all the Iraqi lands and cities from these criminals, and we will pave the way through these operations not only for the reconstruction but also for the general elections," Qasim Dawoud, Iraq's minister of state for national security, told a news conference Friday.
"We are working on the complete clean-up of the city from all those terrorists," Dawoud said, describing Samarra as an "outlaw city" that had spun out of control.
The offensive came in response to "repeated and unprovoked attacks by anti-Iraqi forces" against Iraqi and coalition forces, the U.S. military statement said. "Unimpeded access throughout the city for Iraqi security forces and multinational forces is non-negotiable," it said.
Samarra had been a "no go" zone for the American forces since May. U.S. forces returned briefly on Sept. 9 under a peace deal brokered by tribal leaders under which U.S. forces agreed to provide millions of dollars in reconstruction funds in exchange for an end to attacks on American and Iraqi troops. But clashes quickly resumed.
The assault on Samarra, a city with an estimated population of 250,000 people, began shortly after midnight. Residents cowered in their homes as tanks and warplanes pounded the city. Loud explosions and the crackle of automatic gunfire continued sporadically into the afternoon. Houses were flattened and cars charred.
An AH-64 Cobra helicopter was hit by small arms fire but was able to land safely at a coalition base near Samarra, the military said.
"We are terrified by the violent approach used by the Americans to subdue the city," said Mahmoud Saleh, a 33-year-old civil servant. "I hope that the fighting ends as soon as possible."
Many bodies were strewn in the street but could not be collected for fear of American snipers firing from rooftop of high buildings, eyewitnesses said. U.S. troops searched houses in the city's Jubailiya neighborhood and some shooting was heard in west Samarra.
U.S. troops blocked most of the roads, preventing residents from fleeing the city although one exit route was still reportedly open. Some residents fled before the attack, but most stayed behind amid news of intense negotiations to solve the crisis peacefully.
Smoke rose from an area around the Imam Ali al-Hadi and Imam Hassan al-Askari shrine, raising fears about one of the holiest sites for Shiite Muslims. But the shrine was not damaged and an Iraqi commando unit took the mosque, capturing 25 armed insurgents, said Maj. Neal O'Brien, a spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division.
"Coalition forces and Iraqi security forces will do everything possible to protect the valuable site from damage," he said.
As Iraqi forces secured the Samarra bridge, American soldiers saw insurgents in speedboats loading ordnance on the banks of the Tigris River, the military said. Soldiers fired warning shots and the insurgents returned fire, prompting U.S. forces to destroy the boats, killing their occupants, a statement said.
Dawoud said more than 100 insurgents were killed in the fighting and 37 others captured, including members of Saddam Hussein's deposed regime. No foreign Arab fighters were taken captive, he said.
Dr. Khalid Ahmed said at least 80 bodies and more than 100 wounded were brought to Samarra General Hospital, but it was not immediately clear how many were insurgents. The hospital was running out of supplies, Ahmed said.
The operation involved about 3,000 soldiers of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division along with 2,000 members of the Iraqi army and Iraqi National Guard.
During the Samarra push, soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division rescued a kidnapped Turkish construction worker who was being held in the city. He was identified as Yahlin Kaya, an employee of the 77 Construction Company in Samarra.
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