- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2003

SAMARRA, Iraq — One of the bloodiest engagements since the fall of Saddam Hussein showed a new, deadlier side of the Iraqi insurgency: stepped up, coordinated assaults by groups of guerrillas bent on battle rather than a hit-and-run attack, the U.S. military said yesterday.

“Here it seems they had the training to stand and fight,” said Capt. Andy Deponai, whose tank was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during the firefight Sunday in Samarra, north of Baghdad.

Residents disputed U.S. assertions that dozens of Iraqi fighters died, saying fewer than 10 were killed and that most of those were civilians.

The well-coordinated ambushes signaled an escalation of guerrilla tactics, although the attack in Samarra was unsuccessful. A dozen cars lay gutted and wrecked in the streets yesterday, and bullet holes pocked many buildings. A mosque and a kindergarten were also damaged.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said that in one of the ambushes on armored convoys carrying large quantities of cash to two banks in the town of Samarra, a dozen attackers dashed out of a mosque and opened fire on military vehicles. They also fired from alleys and rooftops.

“It was a large group of people,” Gen. Kimmitt said in Baghdad. “Are we looking at this one closely? Yes. Is this something larger than we’ve seen over the past couple of months? Yes. Are we concerned about it? We’ll look at it and take appropriate measures in future operations.”

Agence France-Presse said Gen. Kimmitt acknowledged that the U.S. death toll was based on estimates gleaned from troop debriefings and that U.S. forces had not recovered any bodies from the scene.

Asked what might have happened to the bodies, the general said: “I would suspect that the enemy would have carried them away and brought them back to where their initial base was,” the French news agency reported.

Insurgents struck elsewhere yesterday. West of Baghdad, gunmen ambushed a U.S. military convoy, killing one soldier, the U.S. military said. The attack with small-arms fire occurred near Habbaniyah, 50 miles west of Baghdad, the military said.

A U.S. Army general said Iraqi insurgents in Baghdad appear to have a central leadership that finances attacks and instructs eight to 12 rebel bands operating in the city when to attack and when to lie low.

But Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey said the instructions were not specific.

“The manner of attack is up to the individual bands as long as the efforts disrupt and discredit the U.S.-led coalition and any progress it has made,” said Gen. Dempsey, who commands the Army’s 1st Armored Division, which controls Baghdad and the surrounding region.

He said he believed a recent lull in attacks in Baghdad stemmed from an order to refrain from action during coalition offensives against guerrilla targets.

The fighting in Samarra, 60 miles north of the Iraqi capital, represented a greater level of coordination in the Iraqi insurgency, although U.S. forces said they had anticipated the attacks and blunted them with superior firepower.

Five American soldiers were wounded, the U.S. military said. Soldiers said there was sustained firing at both banks for about 45 minutes, but that heavy fire from U.S. tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles overwhelmed the attackers.

Residents said Saddam loyalists attacked the Americans, but that when U.S. forces began firing, the fight was joined by civilians angered over recent U.S. raids.

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