BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces entered the central city of Samarra for the first time in months Thursday in order to reseat the city council and regain control, the military said.
U.S. Humvees and armored vehicles were seen going into the city. Two U.S. helicopters hovered overhead.
In a city council meeting Thursday, the interim mayor and acting police chief of Samarra (search) were put into office and will serve until the general elections expected by January.
Local leaders in end of the U.S. occupation on June 28, the interim Iraqi government lost control over key Sunni Muslim cities such as Samarra as well as Fallujah and Ramadi.
The move into the city came a day after the commander of the 1st Infantry Division (search) said that his troops and their Iraqi allies would regain control of Samarra — either through negotiation or by force — before Iraq's general election planned for 2005.
Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who leads the 1st Infantry Division, said Wednesday that he had offered a deal to insurgents under which they would be free to leave the city or to remain inside as long as they stopped fighting.
But it was unclear Thursday whether the insurgents had actually accepted any kind of proposal.
Batiste said his stance included four nonnegotiable demands. Fighters must stop their attacks. U.S. and Iraqi forces must get unimpeded access to the city. The mayor and city council must be allowed to resume their duties. And the police and Iraqi National Guard be permitted to control day-to-day security there.
In exchange, he said, tens of millions of dollars in reconstruction aid would be made available to create jobs repairing the crumbling city.
Military intelligence officials said they believe a hundred or so hardcore guerrillas, including some 40 foreigners — Saudis, Yemenis, Sudanese and Jordanians — were the biggest obstacle to Batiste's initiative.
The general said he and division leaders spoke Tuesday with tribal leaders from the city and its surroundings. He said those leaders, who also have met with interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search), have been leaning on the guerrillas. In turn, some leaders of the insurgency already have brought their troops to heel.
Allawi and U.S. ground commander Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz also have said they are optimistic that Samarra would be relinquished without a repeat of April's disastrous siege of Fallujah or August's brutal assault on Najaf. Thousands of Iraqis were killed in those operations and city blocks were blasted to rubble.
The troops that entered Samarra on Thursday will have joint traffic control points in the city and will also open the Samarra Bridge, the statement said.