SAMARRA, Iraq — Bloodied by weeks of suicide bombings and assassinations, Iraqi security forces emerged Sunday to patrol Samarra after a morale-boosting victory in this Sunni Triangle city, and U.S. commanders praised their performance.
American and Iraqi commanders have declared the operation in Samarra, 60 miles northwest of Baghdad, a successful first step in a major push to wrest key areas of Iraq from insurgents before January elections.
But locals were angered by the civilian death toll.
Of the 70 dead brought to Samarra General Hospital since fighting erupted, 23 were children and 18 were women, hospital official Abdul-Nasser Hamed Yassin said. Another 160 wounded people also were treated.
“The people who were hurt most are normal people who have nothing to do with anything,” said Abdel Latif Hadi, 45.
Twelve miles south of Baghdad, two bodies — those of a woman and a man whose head was severed — were found, with police saying the corpses looked like those of Westerners.
Police Lt. Hussein Rizouqi said no identification was found on the corpses. The woman, who was shot in the head, had blond hair, he said.
Insurgents have used kidnappings and grisly beheadings in their 17-month campaign to drive the United States and its allies out of Iraq. More than 140 foreigners have been kidnapped since April, some as political leverage and others for ransoms. At least 26 have been killed.
A Lebanese electrical company appealed to Iraqi kidnappers to release two employees seized last week, saying they were not working with U.S. forces. The men were among 10 people seized by a group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq — the same group that claimed responsibility for abducting two French journalists last month.
U.S. warplanes hammered another rebel-held city, Fallujah, the latest strike in weeks of attacks targeting groups linked to terrorists, particularly the network of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
The city hospital said two people were killed and 12 were wounded in the airstrikes. Two more people, a man and his wife, were killed and two others were wounded when a tank fired on a house, Dr. Rafe al-Issawi said.
The U.S. military, which confirmed only one strike targeting a building where insurgents were moving weapons, regularly accuses the hospital of inflating casualty figures.
Residents said U.S. troops built temporary checkpoints across two entrances into the city, 40 miles west of Baghdad, regarded by the U.S. military as the “toughest nut to crack” in Iraq.
“We’re very worried that Fallujah might be next after Samarra,” Fallujah resident Saad Majid, 40, said. “I have children. I’m very worried about them. We don’t sleep all night because of the strikes.”
U.S. military officials have signaled they plan to step up attacks into key Iraqi cities this fall — partly as a way to pressure insurgents into negotiating with Iraqi officials.
“I have personally informed (Fallujah residents) that it will not be a picnic. It will be very difficult and devastating,” Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawer said Sunday on the Al-Arabiya television network.
But he said Iraqi troops had to establish a presence in all cities.
On Sunday, residents said they heard sporadic explosions as U.S. and Iraqi forces hunted for rebel holdouts in an otherwise calmer Samarra. Iraqi police patrolled the city, while American soldiers and Iraqi National Guard members searched houses for insurgents and weapons.
U.S. commanders praised Iraqi troops during the attack, saying they secured the hospital, a revered shrine and a centuries-old minaret. The Baghdad government has portrayed the battle as a landmark on the road to establishing an effective fighting force.
Washington is eager to raise Iraqis’ fighting ability to allow them to take a back seat in combat operations and eventually pull out of Iraq.
“It would be premature to say that it is wrapped up, because insurgencies have a tendency to wax and wane, but clearly, the really good news out of this is that Iraqi forces have fought alongside American forces, and … they’ve done well,” national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”
The U.S. military said 125 rebels have been killed and 88 captured in the operation and that security was being restored.