U.S., Iraqi Forces Mop Up Samarra

Published October 03, 2004

| Associated Press

Iraqi security forces patrolled the streets, and U.S. troops went door to door searching for weapons and fighters Sunday after the military claimed success in wresting control of Samarra (search) from Sunni insurgents in fierce fighting.

U.S. warplanes also hammered Fallujah (search), another rebel-held city, killing at least four people, hospital officials said. The U.S. military said it hit a building where the military said insurgents had stockpiled weapons, causing a series of huge explosions.

Meanwhile, the bodies of a man and a woman were found south of Baghdad. The man's head had been severed and was tied to his body while the woman — who had blonde hair — was shot in the head, Police Lt. Hussein Rizouqi said.

Rizouqi said the two might be Westerners, but the corpses, found near the town of Youssefiyah, had no identification. The roads south of Baghdad are the scene of frequent shootings and bombings by insurgents.

U.S. commanders have praised the performance of Iraqi security forces in the offensive in Samarra, 60 miles northwest of Baghdad, calling the assault a successful first step in a major push to wrest key areas from insurgents before January elections.

As the gunfire subsided, Samarra residents emerged from their homes on Sunday to survey the damage and bury the dead. At the main hospital, bodies in black plastic bags were loaded on a truck to be taken to the cemetery.

The military says 125 rebels have been killed and 88 captured since the operation started early Friday.

But residents say many civilians are among the dead, and AP reporters have seen wounded women and children at hospitals. There was mounting anger over the casualties.

"The people who were hurt most are normal people who have nothing to do with anything," said Abdel Latif Hadi, 45.

Still, some residents said they hoped the bloodshed would mean the end of the domination that insurgents have wielded over the city.

"Since several months, the city has been living in a state of lawlessness," said Abbas Mahmoud, 30. "I hope that after this operation, law and order will be restored."

A few grocery stores opened Sunday, but most businesses remained shuttered. Residents moved around on foot, saying the military had instructed them not to use cars. There was no electricity in the city, but water service resumed, residents said.

While Iraqi police patrolled the city, American soldiers and Iraqi National Guard (search) members went house to house searching for insurgents and weapons caches.

The offensive was sharply criticized by the Association of Muslim Scholars, a powerful Sunni grouping that opposes the U.S. presence in Iraq but has helped negotiate the release of some foreign hostages.

"The U.S. occupation forces, regrettably with the approval of the interim government, have launched mad military campaigns against Samarra, this time under the pretext of imposing order and preparing for the elections," the group said in a statement.

U.S. and Iraqi forces have struggled in the past to control Samarra — and one point reaching a deal with local officials that aimed, but failed, to bring peace. The military has not said when it will move against other insurgent controlled cities — particularly Fallujah, seen as the toughest stronghold.

Overnight strikes in Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, were the latest in weeks of attacks aimed at militant groups, particularly the network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search). Followers of the Jordanian militant have claimed responsibility for a string of deadly bombings, kidnappings and other attacks across the country.

The city hospital said two people were killed and 12 wounded in air strikes on four neighborhoods. Two more people, a man and his wife, were killed and two wounded when a tank fired on a house in the city's southern suburbs, Dr. Rafe al-Issawi said.

The U.S. military, which regularly accuses the hospital of inflating casualty figures, confirmed only one strike aimed at a building where insurgents were moving weapons.

The strike on the building sparked 45 minutes of explosions, indicating that it "was being used as a huge weapons/ammunition cache," a coalition statement said. "A large number of enemy fighters are presumed killed."

In other violence:

— A roadside bomb in Abu Ghraib, on Baghdad's western outskirts, killed one Iraqi and wounded three, an Interior Ministry official said.

— A police car hit a roadside bomb in Baqouba, north of the capital, killing one policeman.

— Five Iraqi civilians were wounded by U.S. tank fire early Sunday in the vast Baghdad slum of Sadr City, hospital officials said. The U.S. military had no immediate information on the incident. The neighborhood has seen daily clashes and shelling as U.S. and Iraqi forces attempt to root out fighters loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have pledged a major push to retake areas that have fallen to insurgents before the elections due by Jan. 31.

Samarra, Fallujah, and Ramadi 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 election results. Baghdad's Sadr City, a Shiite stronghold, is also in their sights.

Improving Iraqi security forces is a key part of plans to move against the insurgents — and U.S. and Iraqi commanders said the Samarra operation showed the Iraqis' progress.

"The more operations they conduct, the more confidence they will gain, and the better they will perform," said Maj. Neal E. O'Brian, a military spokesman who was in Samarra on Saturday.

Iraq's interior minister, Falah Hassan al-Naqib, said that Iraqi forces "came out of a defensive position to an offensive position" during the Samarra operation.

"We want to protect our citizens and to have all Iraqis participate in the elections in Iraq by the end of January," al-Naqib told reporters in Samarra.

During April offenses in Fallujah and Najaf, Iraqi troops — despite months of U.S. work in training the forces — melted away at the first sign of confrontation, either fleeing or joining the insurgents.

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