SAMARRA, Iraq – Sporadic gunfire echoed through this Sunni Muslim (search) stronghold Saturday as U.S. and Iraqi forces battled pockets of resistance a day after launching what appeared to be the first major push to regain control of a string of cities before elections in January.
More than 100 guerrillas were killed and 37 captured on the first day of the operation Friday, according to an Iraqi official. The military said one American soldier was killed and four were wounded after some 5,000 swept in to seize the city hall, the main mosque and other key sites in Samarra (search).
With U.S. and Iraqi officials saying they control 70 percent of the city, the Iraqi defense minister claimed success. "It is over in Samarra," Hazem Shaalan told the Arab television station Al-Arabiya.
Meanwhile, in the latest in Iraq's string of kidnappings, militants claimed to have abducted and beheaded an Iraqi construction contractor working on a U.S. base.
Another group said it had kidnapped 10 hostages — six Iraqis, two Lebanese and two Indonesian woman. It demanded the release of a hardline Indonesian cleric imprisoned in his home country, but the cleric — Abu Bakar Bashir (search) — demanded the militants release the woman and rejected any release as a result of kidnapping.
In other violence, car bombs in the cities of Fallujah and Mosul wounded at least three U.S. soldiers, and U.S. troops battled Shiite militants in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City in fighting that wounded another American. The military said Saturday that a U.S. soldier was killed the night before in Baghdad by small arms fire.
Samarra, 60 miles northwest of Baghdad, appeared mostly calm Saturday — except for in the center, where American snipers on rooftops fired at anybody appearing in the streets below. Residents in outlying areas emerged from their homes for the first time to survey the damage.
Many bodies were strewn in the street but could not be collected for fear of the snipers, while others were buried in people's gardens, residents said. A 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew was in effect, and water and electricity services were severed.
AP Television News reported that some residents could not take their wounded for treatment because of gunfire from American troops, who along with Iraqi forces were arresting any persons above the age of 15 being taken to at least one hospital.
"Dead bodies and injured people are everywhere in the city and when we tried to evacuate them, the Americans fired at us," one ambulance driver told APTN. "Later on they told us than we can evacuate only injured women and children and we are not allowed to pick up injured men
Wounded people, mostly women and children, lay on beds at the Tikrit Teaching Hospital.
"His pregnant mother was killed," said one man, Sami Hashem, standing over a young boy whose belly was covered in bandages. Nearby was a young girl who lost her left foot.
Shaalan, the defense minister, said Iraqi forces carried out the lion's share of the fighting and U.S. troops "only provided cover for our operations." He said up to $40 million was being allocated for reconstruction and compensation to residents of the embattled city.
It wasn't known if the Samarra offensive marked the launch of major military operations to wrest other areas of the country from insurgents ahead of the elections set for late January.
The cities of Ramadi, Samarra and Fallujah form part of the Sunni heartland, where resistance to the U.S.-backed government has been the fiercest. Baghdad's Sadr City, a stronghold of Shiite militiamen, is also on U.S. commanders' hit list.
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 before they consider taking on Fallujah, which Secretary of State Colin Powell last week called "the tough one."
But Pentagon officials and defense analysts have said a U.S. military offensive into difficult-to-capture cities might still be delayed, or avoided altogether, if the United States and Iraq decide to settle for partial participation in elections.
A U.S. offensive against Fallujah in April killed hundreds of people — including many civilians, according to local doctors — and raised popular outrage across the country against U.S. forces. After three weeks, the Marines pulled back and the insurgents' hold on the city tightened.
The U.S. military believes many 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's followers.
Qasim Dawoud, Iraq's minister of state for national security, told a news conference Friday that more than 100 insurgents were killed in the Samarra fighting and 37 others captured, including members of Saddam Hussein's deposed regime.
At Samarra General Hospital, Dr. Khalid Ahmed said at least 80 bodies and more than 100 wounded were brought to the facility, but it was not immediately clear how many were insurgents.
Meanwhile, the militant group Ansar al-Sunnah Army issued an Internet statement and video claiming to have beheaded an Iraqi contractor it said was working on water and other projects at the U.S. military base of Al-Taji, north of Baghdad. It vowed to hunt down others helping the U.S. military.
A video showed the man identified as Nafie Dawoud Ibrahim being beheaded. Then his severed head was placed on his back.
The authenticity of the statement could not be verified. The same group has claimed responsibility for the killing of 12 Nepalese workers and three Iraqi Kurds.
More than 140 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq since April by a spectrum of groups, with some demanding ransom and others setting political conditions for their release. At least 26 hostages have been killed.
Also Saturday, a car bomb targeting a U.S. Marine convoy exploded east of Fallujah, wounding a Marine, said 1st. Lt. Lyle Gilbert.
The bombing came hours after a U.S. airstrike flattened two houses in Fallujah, witnesses said. The military said the Friday night strike targeted a safe house used by followers of Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
An Associated Press photographer saw a number of bodies, including those of women and children being pulled from the rubble. A hospital doctor said the strike killed seven Iraqi civilians and wounded 13 others. But the photographer counted five dead and 11 wounded.
Another car bomb Saturday exploded near a U.S. convoy outside the northern city of Mosul, wounding two American soldiers, the military said.
U.S. forces also clashed Saturday with Shiite Muslim insurgents in Baghdad's Sadr City, police and witnesses said. Two U.S. soldiers were wounded when a roadside bomb hit their armored personnel carrier, the military said.
The fighting came after American warplanes and tanks attacked militants holed up in the neighborhood overnight. 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.
Sadr City has been the scene of almost daily clashes and U.S. airstrikes against armed followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.