BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major attack against the insurgent stronghold of Samarra early today, securing government and police buildings in the city, the U.S. command said.
The offensive came in response to “repeated and unprovoked attacks by anti-Iraqi forces” against Iraqi and coalition forces, the military said in a statement. Its aim was to kill or capture insurgents in the city, 60 miles north of Baghdad.
“Unimpeded access throughout the city for Iraqi Security Forces and Multi-National Forces is nonnegotiable,” said the statement, which was issued early today in Baghdad.
Troops of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, Iraq’s national guard and its regular army took part in the nighttime assault.
It said insurgent attacks and acts of intimidation against the people of Samarra had undermined the security situation in the city, regarded as one of the top three insurgency strongholds in Iraq, along with Fallujah and the Baghdad slum known as Sadr City.
Along with U.S. troops, soldiers from the 202nd Iraqi National Guard Battalion and 7th Iraqi Army Battalion were taking part in the operation.
The statement provided no further details of the fighting. An earlier report by CNN said 2,000 rebels were believed to be holed up in the city and that tanks and jets were being used as troops took the city “sector by sector.” Troops were clearing buildings and mosques, CNN said.
Earlier on Thursday, U.S. forces attacked a suspected safehouse used by an al Qaeda-linked group in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, the military said.
Intelligence reports indicated the house was being used by followers of Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the military said in a statement, adding that the followers were planning attacks against U.S.-led forces and Iraqi citizens.
“Significant secondary explosions were observed during the impact indicating a large cache of illegal ordinance was stored in the safehouse,” the statement said. Explosions continued in the northeastern part of the city for hours.
Also, there were conflicting accounts about the deaths of at least six people near Fallujah on Wednesday after an incident involving American forces.
Iraqis who identified themselves as witnesses said U.S. forces opened fire on a car passing Fallujah on the road from Baghdad. The driver was shot in the head and lost control of the car, which plunged into a canal, said Hussein Alwan, who lives near the scene.
A man was brought to Fallujah General Hospital late Wednesday with a bullet wound to the head, Dr. Ahmed Khalil said. Later, the bodies of two women and five children were also brought to the hospital after being recovered from the submerged vehicle, hospital officials and witnesses said.
But the U.S. military said it fired only warning shots at a vehicle driving erratically toward a convoy on the road between Ramadi and Fallujah.
1st Lt. Lyle Gilbert, a U.S. Marine spokesman, said the vehicle then swerved off the road, nose-dived into a canal and became submerged.
“The male driver – believed to be the vehicle’s only occupant – exited the vehicle and was treated on the scene by a U.S. Navy corpsman,” Gilbert said in a statement.
However, Iraqi police responding to the incident later recovered six bodies from the submerged vehicle and took them to Ramadi, Gilbert said.
The two accounts could not immediately be reconciled.
In the safehouse attack, witnesses said two houses were flattened and four others damaged in the strike.
At least four Iraqis were killed – including two women and one child – and eight wounded, said Khalil, the doctor.
“Multinational forces take great care to minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties,” the military said in the statement. “Terrorists’ placement of weapons caches in homes, schools, hospitals and mosques continue to put innocent civilians at risk.”