SAMARRA, Iraq — Iraqi security forces, bloodied by weeks of suicide bombings and assassinations, patrolled yesterday in Samarra after a morale-boosting victory in the Sunni Triangle city.
U.S. commanders praised the Iraqis’ performance and declared the operation a successful first step in a push to wrest key areas of Iraq from terrorists before January elections.
“It would be premature to say that it is wrapped up, because insurgencies have a tendency to wax and wane, but clearly, the really good news out of this is that Iraqi forces have fought alongside American forces, and … they’ve done well,” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”
Some locals were angered by the civilian death toll in the city 60 miles northwest of Baghdad. Of the 70 dead brought to Samarra General Hospital since fighting erupted, 23 were children and 18 were women, hospital official Abdul-Nasser Hamed Yassin said. An additional 160 wounded persons were treated.
“The people who were hurt most are normal people who have nothing to do with anything,” said Abdel Latif Hadi, 45.
Police also reported the discovery of a headless man and a dead woman 12 miles south of Baghdad and said the corpses looked like those of Westerners. Police Lt. Hussein Rizouqi said no identification was found on the corpses. The woman, who was shot in the head, had blond hair, he said.
Terrorists have used kidnappings and grisly beheadings in their 17-month campaign to drive the United States and its allies out of Iraq. More than 140 foreigners have been kidnapped since April, some as political leverage and others for ransoms. At least 26 have been killed.
U.S. warplanes hammered another rebel-held city, Fallujah, in the latest strike in weeks of attacks targeting groups linked to terrorists, particularly the network of Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi.
The city hospital said two persons were killed and 12 wounded in the air strikes. Two more persons, a man and his wife, were killed, and two others were wounded when a tank fired on a house, Dr. Rafe al-Issawi said.
The U.S. military, which confirmed only one strike targeting a building where terrorists were moving weapons, regularly accuses the hospital of inflating casualty figures.
Residents said U.S. troops built temporary checkpoints across two entrances into the city, 40 miles west of Baghdad, regarded by the U.S. military as the “toughest nut to crack” in Iraq.
“We’re very worried that Fallujah might be next after Samarra,” said Fallujah resident Saad Majid, 40. “I have children. I’m very worried about them. We don’t sleep all night because of the strikes.”
U.S. military officials have signaled they plan to step up attacks into key Iraqi cities this fall — partly as a way to pressure terrorists into negotiating with Iraqi officials.
“I have personally informed [Fallujah residents] that it will not be a picnic. It will be very difficult and devastating,” Iraqi President Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer said yesterday on the Al Arabiya television network.
But he said Iraqi troops had to establish a presence in all cities.
Residents said yesterday they heard sporadic explosions as U.S. and Iraqi forces hunted for rebel holdouts in an otherwise calmer Samarra. Iraqi police patrolled the city, while American soldiers and Iraqi national guard members searched houses for terrorists and weapons.
U.S. commanders praised Iraqi troops during the attack, saying they secured the hospital, a revered shrine and a centuries-old minaret. The Baghdad government has portrayed the battle as a landmark on the road to establishing an effective fighting force.
Washington is eager to raise Iraqis’ fighting ability to allow U.S. forces to take a back seat in combat operations and eventually pull out of Iraq.
The U.S. military said that 125 rebels have been killed and 88 captured in the operation and that security was being restored. The Iraqi Red Crescent Society set up about 30 tents on the road north to Tikrit to treat the wounded and accommodate fleeing families.
In Baghdad’s Sadr City slum, five Iraqi civilians were wounded by U.S. tank fire, hospital officials said. The U.S. military had no immediate information.
The area has seen daily clashes and shelling as U.S. and Iraqi forces attempt to root out fighters loyal to radical Shi’ite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.