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Troops Battle to Control Samarra

With Americans Leading Way, Iraqi Forces Secure Key Religious Sites

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 2, 2004; Page A01

BAGHDAD, Oct. 1 -- A heavily armored force of 3,000 U.S. troops, followed by 2,000 Iraqi soldiers, police officers, commandos and National Guardsmen, swept into Samarra on Friday to confront insurgents in what a senior Iraqi official said had become an "outlaw city."

The offensive in the city about 65 miles north of Baghdad largely overwhelmed the rebel force during a night and day of occasionally intense fighting. One U.S. soldier was killed, according to military officials, who estimated insurgent fatalities at more than 100. Hospital officials said they had received the bodies of dozens of Iraqis, including women and children, the Reuters news agency reported.

_____Storming Samarra_____
Video: U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major assault Friday to regain control of the insurgent stronghold of Samarra.

The assault, which began at dusk Thursday, was intended to bring a decisive conclusion to a long-running dispute over who actually runs Samarra, which has a population of 250,000. The police department and city council were co-opted months ago by an insurgency dominated by former members of ousted president Saddam Hussein's government, officials said.

With U.S. armor leading the way for Iraqi forces that secured a sensitive religious shrine and a renowned spiral minaret, the operation was described by Iraqi officials as a model for planned joint operations aimed at putting the interim government in control of several central Iraq cities before national elections promised for January.

"We will spare no effort to clean all Iraqi cities of these criminal gangs," said Qasim Dawood, the government's state minister and national security adviser. "Through these operations, we will open the way not only to reconstruction but also to prepare the general elections to be held as scheduled."

Iraqi and U.S. officials also have vowed to wrest control from insurgents in the Sunni Triangle cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, as well as in Sadr City, the large Shiite Muslim slum on Baghdad's east side. Iraq's deputy prime minister promised this week that, after weeks of largely futile efforts to negotiate political settlements, the trouble spots would be the target of military operations during October.

Senior U.S. commanders had privately predicted such operations would come in November or December because of chronic delays in training and equipping new Iraqi troops, who would follow U.S. forces into each city and assert civil order.

But Dawood offered the massive strike on Samarra as evidence of the interim government's determination to move sooner.

"Our forces are in the process of growing," Dawood said at a news conference. "If this week we are not able to do three or four operations in the same time, probably next week or the week after or after a certain time, you may see that we are going to engage many terrorist locations at the same time.

"This is an indication that our forces are growing fast, well trained and in a very responsible way."

In Fallujah, where news of the military threat was announced from mosques, fighters scrambled to take up defensive positions on the outskirts of the city and plant mines on bridges.

In Samarra, attacks on U.S. patrols have been common. In early July, a car bomb and mortar attack on an Iraqi National Guard station killed five U.S. soldiers and wounded 20. The insurgents, estimated by a U.S. commander to include perhaps three dozen foreign fighters, enforced a strict Islamic code, upbraiding young men for wearing tight jeans and punishing women who eschewed the veil.

Thousands of residents fled Samarra to shelter with relatives in Baghdad and elsewhere. American forces eventually blocked the main bridge over the Tigris River into Samarra, effectively cutting off the city from the country's main north-south highway.

"We recognized some time ago the police chief, the city council and the mayor were ineffective," said Maj. Neal O'Brien, spokesman for the Army's 1st Infantry Division.

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