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.
"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."
Iraqi officials have said that, in order to allow orderly elections to take place across Iraq in January, the offensive for Samarra would be repeated in at least three other urban battlegrounds held by insurgents. Each saw violence this weekend.
In Ramadi, capital of the vast Anbar province 60 miles west of Baghdad, an explosion ripped through a newly renovated building that "was to be a symbolic centerpiece" of the city's renewal, a U.S. military statement said. A Marine patrol shot and killed a man who apparently set off the charge in the Ramadi Agricultural Center on Friday.
In Fallujah, 35 miles west of the capital, U.S. combat aircraft on Saturday bombed a building that officials said housed foreign fighters and local insurgents who have controlled the city since April. Intelligence reports said 10 to 15 men were conducting military training in the building, which is on the outskirts of the city, the U.S. military said.
The strike killed five foreign fighters -- four Saudis and a Syrian -- residents said. The concussion also brought down the roof of a house next door, killing four women and a teenage boy, residents said.
Residents also said an airstrike late Friday killed six members of a family and two overnight guests. Neighbors said the head of the household, Hamad Hdaib Mohammedi, was well known for his opposition to the insurgents. Television footage showed the dust-covered body of a small girl being pulled from the rubble of Mohammedi's home.
Fifteen minutes after the strike, U.S. aircraft dropped leaflets calling on residents to eject foreign fighters and join the political process. The fliers offered $65 million in development projects but warned that the money would go to other cities if the population did not act soon.
In Sadr City, also a rebel stronghold, clashes between 1st Cavalry Division patrols and the Mahdi Army militia of Moqtada Sadr, a rebellious Shiite cleric, continued Saturday. U.S. forces ventured into most areas of the Baghdad slum only inside tanks or other heavily armored vehicles. The military said two soldiers were wounded when a roadside bomb detonated beside their armored personnel carrier.
Elsewhere, a Marine was wounded Saturday morning when a suicide bomber detonated explosives beside a U.S. convoy east of Fallujah. Two soldiers in an Army convoy outside the northern city of Mosul were wounded in a similar attack, the military said.
In Baghdad, a U.S. soldier was reported killed late Friday by small arms fire, bringing the number of death of American personnel in Iraq to 1,060.
A video posted on an Internet site showed the beheading of an Iraqi man and displayed a pass granting him access to a U.S. base. The extremist Ansar al-Sunna Army said in a statement that the man, Barie Nafie Dawoud Ibrahim, was killed for being "one of the biggest contractors" working with the Americans.
The al-Jazeera satellite television network broadcast footage of 10 hostages seized several days ago by another group, the Islamic Army in Iraq. The group has demanded that Indonesia release Abubakar Baasyir, a radical Muslim cleric facing trial on charges of being the spiritual head of Jemaah Islamiah, a regional group operating in Southeast Asia that is linked to al Qaeda. Two of the hostages are Indonesian.
Baasyir rejected the demand in a recording smuggled out of prison in Indonesia to the Associated Press.
"I cannot justify this kidnapping," he said. "I demand that they be freed as Islam does not condone taking hostages of Muslim sisters and brothers. If the captors are Muslim, they truly do not understand Islam."
Special correspondent Bassam Sebti contributed to this report.