Iraq Hotspots Simmer; Samarra Cool

A civilian car burns after a car bomb targeting a U.S. military convoy exploded in Mosul, 360 kilometers (225 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday Oct. 2, 2004. No reports of casualties were immediately available.
Too afraid to stray far, residents buried the dead in their gardens as U.S. and Iraqi forces battled pockets of resistance Saturday in the former insurgent stronghold of Samarra.

A U.S. commander said 125 rebels were killed and 88 captured in two days of fierce fighting, declaring success in the first major push to wrest key areas from guerrillas' hands before elections slated for January.

"Residents disputed U.S. military claims of trying to avoid civilian casualties (in Samarra)," reports CBS News Correspondent Allen Pizzey, "a view that, whether true or not, indicates that it is the insurgents, rather than the U.S. and Iraqi authorities, who have the easier job when it comes to public credibility.

Elsewhere, the rebels struck back Saturday, wounding at least five U.S. troops in three separate bomb attacks. In the latest in a string of kidnappings, militants claimed to have abducted and beheaded an Iraqi construction contractor working on a U.S. base.

Late Friday, a U.S. soldier was killed by small arms fire in Baghdad, the military said.

In other developments:

  • About 100,000 Kurds demonstrated outside provincial government offices in the northern city of Suleimaniyah on Saturday, demanding that the turbulent oil hub of Kirkuk be merged with the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
  • Ohio scientists have come up with a lightweight armor for Humvees designed to protect troops from automatic weapons fire and grenades. So far, the military has tested 75 of the armor kits in the Middle East and wants 400 more from Columbus-based research institute Battelle. The vehicles are meant to carry troops and supplies, but have become targets in the war in Iraq.

    U.S. and Iraqi commanders said they controlled 70 percent of Samarra after some 5,000 troops - including 2,000 Iraqis and 3,000 Americans - swept into the city early Friday. Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan claimed success Saturday, 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."

    Batiste praised the performance of Iraqi troops, saying they "really handled themselves well" as they secured the hospital, a revered shrine and centuries-old minaret.

    "The more operations they conduct, the more confidence they will gain, and the better they will perform," said Maj. Neal E. O'Brian, a military spokesman who was in Samarra Saturday.

    But pockets of resistance persisted. In the early evening, heavy tank shelling and exchanges of machine gun fire erupted in the northern part of the city.

    Building a strong Iraqi force that can take over security from American troops is a cornerstone of the U.S. strategy to restore peace in Iraq. But during April offensives in Fallujah and Najaf, the fledgling Iraqi troops melted away at the first sign of confrontation, either fleeing or joining with the insurgents.

    Batiste said U.S. forces would conduct mopping up operations for at least the next few days before handing over primary responsibility to Iraqi police and National Guard units.

    Elsewhere, violence persisted unabated Saturday.

    A car bomb targeting a U.S. Marine convoy exploded east of Fallujah, another rebel-held city west of Baghdad, the military said. One Marine was wounded in the attack. Later, U.S.-led forces unleashed a strike against a building where they said 15 to 20 insurgents were receiving military style training on the outskirts of the city.

    The attack killed one man and wounded his wife, brother and two young sons, the family told an Associated Press photographer.

    Eyewitnesses said other air attacks followed early Sunday but there were no immediate details on these.

    Another car bomb exploded near a U.S. convoy outside the northern city of Mosul, wounding two American soldiers, the military said.

    U.S. forces also clashed Saturday with Shiite Muslim insurgents in Baghdad's Sadr City, police and witnesses said. Two U.S. soldiers were wounded when a roadside bomb hit their armored personnel carrier, the military said.

    The vast slum has been the scene of almost daily clashes and U.S. air strikes against armed followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, since three weeks of fighting between his Mahdi Army militia and U.S and Iraqi troops ended last month in Najaf.

    But aides to the cleric have indicated in recent weeks that he has started to organize his followers to join Iraq's political process as agreed under a peace deal brokered by Iraq's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

    A gruesome video surfaced on the Internet Saturday purporting to show the beheading of an Iraqi hostage identified as Nafie Dawoud Ibrahim. The Ansar al-Sunnah Army, a Sunni militant group, claimed responsibility for the killing, saying the man was an Iraqi contractor at the U.S. military base of Al-Taji, north of Baghdad. It vowed to hunt down others helping the U.S. military.

    The authenticity of the tape could not be verified. The same group has claimed responsibility for the killing of 12 Nepalese workers and three Iraqi Kurds.

    A Kuwaiti newspaper reported Saturday that an Iraqi militant group is expected to mediate for the release of British hostage Kenneth Bigley, who was seized by Islamic fundamentalists in Baghdad two weeks ago.

    Another group sent a statement to Arab news network al-Jazeera demanding the release of a hardline Indonesian cleric in exchange for two kidnapped Indonesian women. But the cleric - Abu Bakar Bashir - said he did not want to be released under such circumstances and demanded the militants free the women.

    A Jordanian company that does transportation contracting for the U.S. military said it would pull out of Iraq after images broadcast Saturday by another Arab network, Al-Arabiya, showed a kidnapped employee pleading for his life.

    More than 140 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq since April, some as political leverage, and others for ransom. At least 26 hostages have been killed.

    Samarra, 60 miles northwest of Baghdad, appeared mostly calm Saturday - except for in the center, where residents said American snipers on rooftops fired at anybody appearing in the streets below.

    "There are dead people that we cannot take for burial and they are being buried in the gardens of their homes," said Ali Abdul-Latif, a 19-year-old high school student.

    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 Friday, but it was not immediately clear how many were insurgents.

    "Dead bodies and injured people are everywhere in the city and when we tried to evacuate them, the Americans fired at us," an ambulance driver told Associated Press Television News. "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 people, mostly women and children, lay on beds at the Tikrit Teaching Hospital.

    Shaalan, the defense minister, said Iraqi forces carried out the lion's share 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.

    U.S. and Iraqi officials have promised a series of major military operations to retake other parts of the country ahead of the elections due by Jan. 31.

    "What is happening in Samarra is a message to the rest of the country, that we are after the insurgents, not after the people," Iraqi Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib told a press conference in Samarra. "We want to protect our citizens and to have all Iraqis participate in the elections in Iraq by the end of January."