Baghdad, Iraq U.S. and Iraqi forces fought block-by-block into the center of rebel-held Samarra on Friday in what is likely to be the first in a series of major attacks to seize and stabilize insurgent hotspots before January elections.
By nightfall, Iraqi officials said the combined force -- several thousand troops of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, the Iraqi army and Iraqi national guard -- had secured about three-quarters of the city, including government buildings, police headquarters, a pharmaceuticals factory and an important religious shrine.
Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, is within the "Sunni triangle," a hotbed of resistance north and west of Baghdad that is home to many supporters of the Baathist regime of ousted President Saddam Hussein.
U.S. and Iraqi officials claimed they killed more than 100 insurgents and captured 37 in the fighting, although hospital officials put the number of deaths around 20. One American soldier was killed and four injured, according to a statement by military authorities. Conflicting casualty estimates are common in Iraq, especially in insurgent strongholds where it is almost impossible for international media to operate.
Officials at the Pentagon and National Security Council confirmed that the Samarra offensive was the beginning of a campaign to secure Iraq's most dangerous cities before the elections. U.S. and Iraqi officials insist that balloting will take place throughout the country, despite Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's comments last week that some parts of Iraq might have to be excluded.
Other likely military targets before the election include Ramadi and Fallujah, two other Sunni triangle cities west of Baghdad, and the sprawling Sadr City district of Baghdad, which is a stronghold of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Regaining control of Samarra has been a U.S. military priority for more than a month, but plans for the offensive were put on hold in August in order to clear al-Sadr's militia out of the holy Shiite city of Najaf, located south of the capital.
With time starting to run out before January, the Iraqi government signed off on a proposed U.S. offensive on Samarra. Even with several weeks lost, commanders hope the city can be cleared of insurgent pockets before the election.
"There still may be enough time to get there for Samarra," said a senior military official in Baghdad. But commanders are uncertain whether they will be able to win back control of every other insurgent-controlled area before the elections.
"If we wait for a day in Iraq when everything's perfect, that day is not going to come," said one senior defense official in Washington.
Fighting in Samarra started around midnight near a bridge over the Tigris River, where U.S. soldiers spotted insurgents in speedboats dropping off ordnance on the river bank. Two boats were destroyed and several rebels killed in an exchange of fire, military officials said.
As U.S. and Iraqi troops pushed into the city, rebels launched guerrilla attacks on them, using rocket-propelled grenades and small arms. U.S. forces freed a Turkish worker who was being held hostage in Samarra.
'Clean this city'
Iraqi National Security Director Kasim Daoud, in a televised press conference Friday evening, said that he and other senior officials of the interim government had met in Baghdad last Sunday with a delegation of more than 100 religious, tribal, political and professional leaders from Samarra, who "asked us to help them get rid of these terrorists."
Daoud acknowledged that the assault would have gone forward even if the local delegation had objected.
"It is our duty to clean this city," he said.
Samarra has been mainly in rebel hands since last May, when U.S. forces stopped patrolling there at the request of local sheiks who thought their presence was provoking the insurgents.
On Sept. 9, a smaller U.S. force entered Samarra and helped re-establish a city council loyal to interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, guarded by Iraqi security forces. The U.S. troops, lacking a secure base, did not spend the night, but resumed patrols.
U.S. and Iraqi officials hoped that a political solution could be worked out for Samarra, but it failed.
"The local government buckled under pressure from the insurgents," said the senior military official in Baghdad.
Daoud said Iraqi security forces would not be able to hold Samarra on their own, so a continuing U.S. presence would be required. He added that the Iraqi army and national guard are adding trained troops and increasing in strength, and that they soon should be able to conduct multiple operations.
Iraqi and U.S. officials made clear Friday that military gains need to be followed quickly by reconstruction of damaged infrastructure and other measures to revive the moribund economies of cities such as Samarra, so that the population sees tangible benefits from the military offensives.
A senior U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said Friday that a "forward team" had been moved to Najaf to assess the problems and help accelerate reconstruction. The center of Najaf was badly damaged during the assault on al-Sadr loyalists in August.
Friday prayer services at the Imam Ali shrine, one of the holiest sites for Shiite Muslims, have been curtailed because of the fighting. Up to 1 million pilgrims visit the site annually. The shrine was open Friday, and a small number of people visited, but it was decided not to hold regular Friday prayers because of ongoing security problems.
Fighting continued Friday in Sadr City, where U.S.-led forces have been pounding suspected al-Sadr loyalists for several days. An employee at Chawader General Hospital said the facility received five dead and 13 injured people.