U.S. and Iraqi troops surged into the rebel-controlled city of Samarra Friday, battling insurgents in house-to-house combat supported by airstrikes and armor. One American soldier died in the fighting while four were wounded, the military said.
The major offensive, involving more than 1,000 Iraqi Security Forces plus 3000 soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division, was aimed at retaking the city of 100,000 people about 60 miles north of Baghdad.
Samarra has been in the control of guerrillas and foreign fighters, some of them flying the banner of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant who has claimed responsibility for numerous bombings, kidnappings and beheadings.
Iraq's interim Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, had indicated Thursday that a military effort to reclaim areas now held in whole or part by insurgents--such as Fallujah and Samarra--would go forward in October in order to permit the elections scheduled for January to go forward across the country.
"Our hope is that we will regain control of these situations as soon as possible," Salih said Thursday. "The month of October begins tomorrow. And we hope to regain control of these areas before the month of November."
By mid-afternoon Friday, a spokesman for Iraq's Interior Ministry claimed that most of Samarra had been retaken, including the city's Golden Mosque, where Iraqi commandos captured 25 insurgents with weapons.
"The majority of the Samarra is now in control" of the interim Iraqi government, Sabbah Kadhin, the interior spokesman, told CNN in a live interview Friday. "The whole town was hostage to the terrorists who were terrorizing the town. . . . They used mosques, hospitals and homes" as staging areas, he said, "which is why the deaths will include some people who are innocent, which we deeply regret."
Master Sgt. Robert Powell, a spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division, said 96 insurgents were believed killed during Friday's clashes, the Associated Press reported. There was no independent confirmation of that number.
Khalid Ahmed, a physician at Samarra General Hospital, told the AP that at least 80 bodies and more than 100 wounded were brought in, but it was not immediately clear how many of them were insurgents. The hospital was running out of bandages, oxygen and other supplies, Ahmed said.
The Samarra assault, begun at the request of the interim Iraqi government, started late Thursday and intensified after midnight Friday with airstrikes and artillery barrages followed by a ground attack into the city itself, the U.S. military said.
As troops crossed the Tigris River and entered the city, they destroyed two speedboats being loaded up with munitions, killing at least four insurgent fighters, the military said. Two other boats were later destroyed as well, with four more deaths.
Moving through the city, they were attacked by guerrillas armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and small arms.
"In multiple engagements throughout the morning," the military said in a statement, the U.S.-led forces destroyed mortar sites, RPG teams and vehicles "carrying anti-Iraqi forces," the term used by the military to describe the insurgents. "All units achieved their objectives," the statement said.
For months, Samarra has been largely under the control of local insurgents and foreign fighters, who at times have imposed strict Islamic dress and social codes on the population.
Thursday was the first time U.S. forces had entered the city in numbers since Sept. 9, when after negotiations with tribal leaders, U.S. troops reopened the bridge into Samarra and proceeded unchallenged to reseat the city council authorized by Iraq's interim government.
That uneasy truce subsequently fell apart, however, and earlier this week insurgents put on a defiant show in the town center. Riding in Iraqi police pickups and flying the banners of the insurgent group loyal to Zarqawi, the militants paraded on main streets for some two hours at midday Tuesday.
"We call that a target," a senior U.S. military official in Iraq said with a grin on Wednesday, as planning proceeded for Thursday's assault.
Barbash reported from Washington.