Prague, 4 October 2004 -- U.S. and Iraqi commanders are calling the three-day-old battle to retake Samarra a successful first step in a major push to take back key areas from the control of insurgents before January's scheduled elections.
Iraqi Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib described the operation to reporters yesterday as "one the best operations that has taken place anywhere in Iraq."
"We congratulate the people of Samarra for getting rid of the criminals who were in control of the city from the beginning of July," al-Naqib said.
Military operations by some 5,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces are continuing in the city, including strikes by U.S. war planes overnight. U.S. military officials said the worst of the fighting is over, and that 125 insurgents have been killed and 88 captured.
Some 70 percent of Samarra -- 100 kilometers northwest of Baghdad -- is reportedly in the control of U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Some 70 percent of the city -- 100 kilometers northwest of Baghdad -- is reportedly in the control of U.S. and Iraqi forces.
But local residents said the battle to retake Samarra has come at a huge cost to civilians.
In an interview with Reuters, Samarra resident Matra Shaker said her sister and mother were killed in the assault: "I hope God will destroy [U.S. President George W.] Bush's house. It's a tragedy! Two from our house died."
AP quoted an official at Samarra General Hospital, Abdul-Nasser Hamid Yassin, as saying that of the 70 dead brought to the hospital since fighting began, 23 have been children and 18 have been women.
The U.S. military called the air attacks "precision strikes" and said everything is being done to keep civilian casualties to a minimum.
Aid organizations have expressed concern about a lack of water and electricity and the fate of hundreds of families who have been forced to flee. Reporters say many buildings in the city's commercial district are severely damaged.
Samarra resident Khalil Samarai said he used the Tigris River to escape and that city residents are desperate: "All of the roads are closed. We crossed the river, and they shot at us three times. I don't know if they are targeting us or not. You can see the children. If the roads were open, half of the city would leave."
Elsewhere in Iraq, U.S. warplanes bombed another rebel-held city, Al-Fallujah, early today. Doctors said at least 11 Iraqis, including women and children, were killed in two strikes.
The U.S. military command in Baghdad said it was targeting bases of the Jordanian-born extremist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi.
Two separate explosions also shook the capital, Baghdad, this morning.
At least 10 Iraqis were killed and dozens wounded by a car bomb near one of the heavily fortified entrances to the Green Zone, home to the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices.
Less than an hour later, another explosion -- also believed to be a car bomb -- rocked one of the city's main thoroughfares. The site is near a number of major hotels used by foreign contractors. The number of casualties is not yet known.
(compiled from news agency reports)