Facing a major assault in Fallujah, insurgents struck back Saturday with suicide car bombs, mortars and rockets across a wide swath of central Iraq, killing over 30 people and wounding more than 60 others, including more than a dozen Americans.
Those attacks, which included use of police vehicles in car-bombings, could have been aimed at relieving pressure on Fallujah, where about 10,000 American troops are massing for a major assault.
Web site postings late Saturday claimed responsibility for several attacks in the name of an al Qaeda-linked group believed holed up in Fallujah.
U.S. jets pounded Fallujah early Saturday in the heaviest airstrikes in six months - including five 500-pound bombs dropped on suspected insurgent targets. Residents reported U.S. artillery fire late Saturday in southern parts of the city.
The deadliest attacks Saturday occurred in Samarra, a city 60 miles north of Baghdad that U.S. and Iraqi commanders have touted as model for pacifying restive Sunni Muslim areas of the country. Insurgents stormed a police station, triggered at least two suicide car bombs and fired mortars at government installations. One of the car bombs, which targeted the mayor's office, used a stolen Iraqi police vehicle, the U.S. military said.
Twenty-nine people, including 17 police and 12 Iraqi civilians, were killed throughout Samarra, the U.S. military said. Arabic language television stations said more than 30 died as gangs of insurgents roamed the city, clashing with American and Iraqi forces.
Elsewhere, 16 American soldiers were wounded Saturday in an attack against a convoy in Ramadi, a major city in the volatile Sunni Triangle, the U.S. military said.
CBS News Correspondent Kimberley Dozier in Baghdad says, "The Americans insist Samarra, unlike Fallujah or Ramadi, is a place where elections can be held. But they haven't had a chance to ask would-be voters there if they plan to show up (for scheduled January balloting), after the latest violence."
In other developments:
Three Americans were wounded when a car bomb exploded near the entrance to Baghdad International Airport Saturday. One Iraqi was killed and another injured, the U.S. military said. Three Humvees were heavily damaged, witnesses said. Explosions rattled the center of the capital through the night Saturday.
In Web postings, the al Qaeda affiliate group of Jordanian-born terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the attacks in Samarra, Ramadi and Baghdad. The claims could not be verified, but U.S. officials believe al-Zarqawi's group uses Fallujah as a base.
Two Marines were injured by a car bomb near a Fallujah checkpoint Saturday, and a U.S. soldier was wounded when a roadside bomb exploded south of Fallujah.
Residents of the city of Mahmoudiya, 25 miles south of Baghdad, said insurgents were warning residents that if Fallujah is attacked, all government buildings will be targeted.
In the Ramadi attack, the American soldiers were wounded Saturday when they were were rammed by a suicide car bomber driving an Iraqi police vehicle in the insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad, the U.S. military said.
The soldiers, from the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, were traveling on the highway between Ramadi and Fallujah when their seven-ton vehicle was attacked in eastern Ramadi, according to the U.S. military.
The suicide bomber was inside an Iraqi police vehicle parked in the highway median with its lights on. The bomber allowed four Humvees to pass by, but slammed into the seven-ton vehicle as it passed, exploding on impact, the U.S. military said.
The wounded soldiers were transported by helicopter to a military medical hospital, the military said.
U.S. forces have been clashing for weeks with rebels in Ramadi, located in the restive Sunni Triangle about 70 miles west of Baghdad.
The dead in Samarra included the local Iraqi National Guard commander, Abdel Razeq Shaker al-Garmali, hospital officials said. Another 40 people, including 17 policemen, were injured, the military said.
U.S. military vehicles roamed through the besieged city using loudspeakers to announce an indefinite curfew starting at 2 p.m. Saturday. American warplanes and helicopters roamed the skies, and residents said U.S. troops were conducting house-to-house searches late Saturday.
Samarra, an ancient city of gold-domed mosques that once served as the capital of a Muslim empire extending from Spain to India, was recaptured from Sunni Muslim insurgents in September and had been touted as a model for restoring government control to areas formerly under guerrilla domination.
U.S. and Iraqi forces hope to use the same techniques if they drive Sunni militants from Fallujah. American commanders have assembled a force of Marines, Army soldiers and U.S.-trained Iraqi fighters around Fallujah, a major insurgent base 40 miles west of Baghdad.
They are awaiting orders from interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to launch an all-out assault.
However, the violence in Samarra underscored the difficulty of maintaining civilian authority in Sunni areas even after the worst of the fighting ebbs.
"I cannot claim that entering Fallujah will end the terrorist attacks in Iraq," Iraq's national security adviser, Qassem Dawoud, told Al-Arabiya television. "But I can say that we will deal with a very big pocket of terrorism in Iraq and we will uproot it. This pocket forms the backbone and the center for terrorists in other areas in Iraq."
U.S. and Iraqi authorities hope to curb the insurgency so that national elections can be held by the end of January. However, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others have warned that a military offensive could trigger a wave of violence that would sabotage the ballot.
The comments drew anger and frustration from U.S., British and Iraqi officials, The Washington Post reported Saturday.
The influential Sunni clerical Association of Muslim Scholars has threatened to call a boycott if Fallujah is attacked. A public outcry over civilian casualties prompted the Bush administration to call off a siege in April, after which Fallujah fell under control of radical clerics.
"The experience that occurred in Samarra is now being repeated again in Fallujah, and we can see that nothing was achieved in Samarra," Ayad al-Samaraei of the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic party told Al-Jazeera television. "The situation is still as it was before" in Samarra.
U.S. intelligence estimates there are about 3,000 insurgents dug in behind defenses and booby traps in Fallujah, a city of about 300,000 which has become a symbol throughout the Islamic world of Iraqi resistance to the U.S.-led occupation.
Allawi, a secular Shiite Muslim with strong ties to the CIA and State Department, has demanded that Fallujah hand over foreign extremists, including al-Zarqawi and his followers, and allow government troops to enter the city. Al-Zarqawi's group is responsible for numerous car bombs and beheading several foreign hostages.
Military planners believe there are about 1,200 hardcore insurgents in Fallujah - at least half of them Iraqis. They are bolstered by insurgent cells with up to 2,000 fighters in the surrounding towns and countryside.
Iraqi authorities have closed a border crossing point with Syria, and U.S. troops have sealed up the main highway into Fallujah.