SAMARRA, Iraq — U.S. and Iraqi forces battled pockets of resistance in Samarra yesterday, shaking the city with sporadic gunfire as U.S. and Iraqi commanders claimed success in their two-day-old offensive to regain control of the Sunni insurgent stronghold.
The U.S. commander whose troops spearheaded the attack said 125 insurgents had been killed and 88 captured in fighting since Friday in what appeared to be the first major push to wrest a string of cities from guerrillas’ hands before elections in January.
One American soldier was killed in the assault, in which 2,000 U.S. troops and 3,000 Iraqi soldiers swept into the city. Commanders said yesterday that they controlled 70 percent of the city. Still, fighting continued. In the early evening, heavy tank shelling and exchanges of machine-gun fire erupted in the northern part of the city.
Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan claimed success, telling the Arab television station Al Arabiya: “It is over in Samarra.”
Maj. Gen. John Batiste, commander of the 1st Infantry Division, said he was “very confident that the future of Samarra is good.”
“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,” he said.
Speaking on CNN, Gen. Batiste praised the performance of Iraqi troops. Improving Iraqi forces, who have performed poorly in past large battles, is a key part of U.S. plans to fight the insurgency.
“The Iraqi security forces really handled themselves well,” Gen. Batiste said. “They’re getting better and better trained, better and better equipped. It ought to give us a lot of confidence.”
Meanwhile, in the latest in Iraq’s string of kidnappings, militants claimed to have abducted and beheaded an Iraqi construction contractor working on a U.S. base.
Another group said it had kidnapped 10 hostages — six Iraqis, two Lebanese and two Indonesian women. It demanded the release of a hard-line Indonesian cleric imprisoned in his home country, but the cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir, demanded the militants release the women and rejected any release as a result of kidnapping.
In other violence, car bombs in the cities of Fallujah and Mosul wounded at least three U.S. soldiers, and U.S. troops battled Shi’ite militants in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City in fighting that wounded another American. The military said yesterday that a U.S. soldier was killed Friday night in Baghdad by small-arms fire.
In Baghdad last evening, two loud explosions went off near the Green Zone, the heavily fortified seat of the U.S. Embassy and key Iraqi government offices. No details on the cause were available immediately.
Samarra, 60 miles northwest of Baghdad, appeared mostly calm yesterday, except in the center, where residents said U.S. snipers on rooftops fired at anybody appearing in the streets below. Residents in outlying areas emerged from their homes for the first time to survey the damage.
Many bodies were strewn in the street but could not be collected for fear of the snipers, but others were buried in people’s gardens, residents said. A 7 p.m.-to-7 a.m. curfew was in effect, and water and electricity services were severed.
Marine Maj. Jay Antonelli, a command spokesman in Baghdad, said U.S. soldiers did not fire at civilians. “We had snipers firing at anti-Iraqi forces who were armed and those observed at mortar positions,” he said.
At Samarra General Hospital, Dr. Khalid Ahmed said at least 80 bodies and more than 100 wounded were brought to the facility, but it was not immediately clear how many were insurgents.
AP Television News reported that some residents could not take their wounded for treatment because of gunfire from U.S. troops, who with Iraqi forces were arresting anyone older than 15.
“Dead bodies and injured people are everywhere in the city and, when we tried to evacuate them, the Americans fired at us,” one ambulance driver told the AP. “Later on, they told us that we can evacuate only injured women and children, and we are not allowed to pick up injured men.”
Wounded persons, mostly women and children, lay on beds at the Tikrit Teaching Hospital.
“His pregnant mother was killed,” said one man, Sami Hashem, standing over a young boy whose belly was covered in bandages. Nearby was a young girl who had lost her left foot.
Mr. Shaalan, the defense minister, said Iraqi forces carried out almost all of the fighting and U.S. troops “only provided cover for our operations.” He said up to $40 million was being allocated for reconstruction and compensation to residents of the embattled city.
The cities of Ramadi, Samarra and Fallujah form part of the Sunni heartland, where resistance to the U.S.-backed government has been the fiercest. Baghdad’s Sadr City, a stronghold of Shi’ite militiamen, is also on U.S. commanders’ hit list.
It is feared that inability to stage balloting in the so-called Sunni Triangle would severely mar, or even invalidate, election results.