BAGHDAD, Oct. 2 -- U.S. and Iraqi forces took control of the central Iraqi city of Samarra on Saturday but engaged in sporadic clashes with insurgents who had dispersed into the narrowest of its closely packed streets to continue fighting in small bands.
Iraqi officials used the apparent victory as an opportunity to warn resistance fighters who control or frequently destabilize other cities in central and northern Iraq and harass U.S. and Iraqi patrols on the roads between them.
An Iraqi faces a soldier with a white flag in Samarra. Residents said insurgents scattered.
(Jim Macmillan -- AP)
"This is the first step in operations to take back lawless areas," Interior Minister Falah Naqib, a native of Samarra, told reporters at city hall, which was recaptured by U.S. and Iraqi troops, news services reported. "The Iraqi government is moving from a defense position to an offensive position to regain control over all of Iraq.
"We cleaned up the city from all the bad guys and terrorists," Naqib said.
"It is over in Samarra," Hazim Shalan, the Iraqi defense minister, announced on al-Arabiya, a pan-Arab satellite news network.
U.S. commanders estimated that 125 insurgents had been killed in the fighting, and hospitals in the area reported receiving more than 80 bodies, including an unknown number of civilians.
But as tank and machine-gun fire continued after dusk, residents said many insurgents had simply scattered.
One resident with ties to the resistance said fighters learned early in the battle not to gather in groups, which had made inviting targets for U.S. combat aircraft circling over the city, about 65 miles north of Baghdad.
"Concerning the movement of the mujaheddin, they take the small streets to attack. They don't move like before. They used to move in groups, but now they don't," the resident said by satellite telephone, speaking on condition that he be identified only as Hamad.
"All the streets are empty. It is difficult for the people to take the killed and wounded to the hospitals and cemeteries," he said, adding that many people are being buried in yards.
Army Maj. Gen. John R. S. Batiste, commander of the 1st Infantry Division, which sent 3,000 soldiers into the city Thursday night, said: "This is great news for the people of Samarra, 200,000 people who have been held captive, hostage if you will, by just a couple of hundred thugs."
The 1st Infantry Division, which lost one soldier in two days of battle, was followed into the city by 2,000 Iraqi forces, most of them freshly trained guardsmen, commandos and police. U.S. and Iraqi officials said real success would come only if the Iraqis managed to hold the peace when the armored U.S. forces withdraw. Samarra fell into insurgent hands this summer when its police force collapsed.
Batiste, who spoke to a CNN crew accompanying his division, praised the Iraqi forces. Specially trained Iraqi units captured two religious sites in the city without suffering any casualties.
"The Iraqi security forces really handled themselves well," Batiste said. "They're getting better and better trained, better and better equipped. It ought to give us a lot of confidence."