- The Washington Times - Friday, October 1, 2004

SAMARRA, Iraq — U.S. and Iraqi forces battled their way into the heart of this Sunni stronghold yesterday and moved house to house in search of militants in what appeared to be the first major offensive before January elections to regain control of areas lost to insurgents.

More than 100 guerrillas were killed and 37 captured, according to an Iraqi official. The military said one American soldier was killed and four were wounded.

Backed by warplanes and tanks, some 5,000 troops swept in to seize the city hall, the main mosque and other important sites in Samarra, leaving only pockets of resistance after more than 12 hours of combat, according to the U.S. military and Iraqi authorities.

Soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division rescued a kidnapped Turkish construction worker who was being held in the city. He was identified as Yahlin Kaya, an employee of the 77 Construction Company in Samarra.

The city appeared calm late yesterday except for American snipers on rooftops. Troops ordered residents to stay inside and announced a 7 p.m.-to-7 a.m. curfew. Water and electricity services were severed.

U.S. forces also clashed with insurgents in Baghdad, where warplanes and tanks attacked militants in the vast slum of Sadr City. A hospital director said 12 Iraqis were killed and 11 were wounded. The U.S. military, which maintains that Iraqi hospital sources often exaggerate casualties, said only one armed insurgent was killed.

The Americans said they conducted the operation in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, at the request of the Iraqi government. The attack appeared to be the start of major military operations to wrest other areas of the country from insurgents ahead of general elections.

U.S. military officials have signaled they plan to increase incursions into key Iraqi cities this fall — partly as an effort by the United States to pressure insurgents into negotiations with Iraqi officials. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld alluded to this last week when he said insurgencies in the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi can be solved either diplomatically through negotiations, or through force.

Also on the list for U.S. military commanders is Sadr City, scene of almost daily clashes and U.S. air strikes against armed followers of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

While Sadr City remains a bastion of Iraq’s majority Shi’ite Muslims, Ramadi, Samarra and Fallujah form part of the Sunni heartland, where resistance to the U.S.-backed government has been the fiercest. It is feared that inability to stage balloting in the Sunni Triangle would severely mar, or even invalidate, election results.

Analysts in the United States said an offensive into Samarra was also a way to give Iraqi forces some needed combat experience before they might have to take on Ramadi and Fallujah, which Secretary of State Colin L. Powell last week called “the tough one.”

The U.S. military believes many suicide bomb attacks and kidnappings are launched from the Sunni Triangle, especially out of Fallujah, which has endured weeks of “precision strikes” aimed at followers of Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

“We will spare no effort to clean all the Iraqi lands and cities from these criminals, and we will pave the way through these operations not only for the reconstruction but also for the general elections,” Qasim Dawoud, Iraq’s minister of state for national security, said at a press conference yesterday.

“We are working on the complete cleanup of the city from all those terrorists,” Mr. Dawoud said, describing Samarra as an “outlaw city” that had spun out of control.

The offensive came in response to “repeated and unprovoked attacks by anti-Iraqi forces” against Iraqi and coalition forces, the U.S. military said. “Unimpeded access throughout the city for Iraqi security forces and multinational forces is non-negotiable.”

Samarra had been a “no-go” zone for American forces since May. U.S. forces returned briefly on Sept. 9 as part of a peace deal brokered by tribal leaders. U.S. forces agreed to provide millions of dollars in reconstruction funds in exchange for an end to attacks on American and Iraqi troops. But clashes quickly resumed.

The assault on Samarra, a city with an estimated population of 250,000, began shortly after midnight. Residents cowered in their homes as tanks and warplanes pounded the city. Explosions and the crackle of automatic gunfire continued sporadically into the afternoon.

“We are terrified by the violent approach used by the Americans to subdue the city,” said Mahmoud Saleh, a 33-year-old civil servant. “I hope that the fighting ends as soon as possible.”

Smoke rose from an area around the Imam Ali al-Hadi and Imam Hassan al-Askari shrine, raising fears about one of the holiest sites for Shi’ite Muslims. But the shrine was not damaged and an Iraqi commando unit took the mosque, capturing 25 armed insurgents, said Maj. Neal O’Brien, a spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division.

“Coalition forces and Iraqi security forces will do everything possible to protect the valuable site from damage,” he said.

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