BAGHDAD, Iraq – American warplanes struck militant positions in two insurgent-controlled cities Thursday and U.S. and Iraqi troops quietly took control of a third in a sweeping crackdown following a spike in attacks against U.S. forces.
More than 60 people were reported killed, most of them in Tal Afar, one of several cities which American officials acknowledged this week had fallen under insurgent control and become “no-go” zones.
Nine people, including two children, were reported killed in an airstrike in Fallujah against a house which the U.S. command suspected of being used by allies of the Jordanian-born terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. American and Iraqi troops also moved into Samarra for the first time in months.
The robust strikes came during a week in which nearly 20 American troops were killed – pushing the U.S. military death toll in the Iraq campaign above 1,000 – and al Qaeda claimed U.S. forces neared defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The Americans in both countries are between two fires, if they continue they bleed to death and if they withdraw they lose everything,” Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin-Laden’s top deputy, said on a videotape broadcast Thursday by Al-Jazeera.
President Bush received a National Security Council briefing on Iraq early Thursday from Gen. John Abizaid, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte and other top officials. White House spokesman Scott McClellan refused to say what they told Bush of the surging violence.
In a statement, the U.S. command said military operations around Tal Afar were designed to rid the city of “a large terrorist element that has displaced local Iraqi security forces throughout the recent weeks.”
The U.S. military said 57 insurgents were killed in the attack on Tal Afar, a northern city near the border with Syria that lies on smuggling routes for weapons and foreign fighters. The provincial health director, Dr. Rabie Yassin, said 27 civilians were killed and 70 wounded. It was unclear whether those reported by the Iraqis as civilians were counted as insurgents by the Americans.
Late Thursday, the regional government’s television station reported U.S. and Iraqi government forces had agreed to allow medical teams to enter Tal Afar to care for the wounded but that military operations would continue “until the city is liberated from outsiders and saboteurs so that peace can be restored.”
“Fighting went on throughout the night in three streets of Tal Afar between U.S. and Iraqi forces on the one hand and the resistance on the other,” said Bashar Mohammed, a teacher who fled the city with his family.
The airstrike in Fallujah was the third in as many days against suspected insurgent positions in the city 30 miles west of Baghdad. A two-story house was destroyed and two adjacent homes were substantially damaged, witnesses said.
U.S. and Iraqi authorities lost control of Fallujah after U.S. Marines ended a three-week siege last April and turned the city over to a U.S.-sanctioned force, the Fallujah Brigade, which has now all but disappeared.
Using a different strategy, American and Iraqi forces entered the central city of Samarra for the first time in months under an agreement with local leaders to restore central government control peacefully.
A member of the Samarra council, Raad Hatem, said the deal called for the appointment of a new mayor and police chief and for reconstruction to begin next week. In return, Samarra residents agreed to remove guns from the streets. The Americans pledged to stop raiding private homes.
The troops that entered the city will maintain joint traffic control points in the city and will also open the Samarra Bridge.
Maj. Gen. John Batiste, commander of the 1st Infantry Division, said this week he had offered a deal to insurgents under which they would be free to leave Samarra or to remain inside as long as they stopped fighting. U.S. said they believed a hundred or so extremists, including some 40 foreigners – Saudis, Yemenis, Sudanese and Jordanians – had been the biggest obstacle to Batiste’s initiative.
Restoring government control to major cities is essential if the country is to hold national elections by the end of January. The weakening of central government authority has led to a wave of kidnappings of Iraqis and foreigners, including two French journalists seized last month and two Italian female aid workers taken captive Tuesday in Baghdad.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged this week that it could take months before U.S. and Iraqi authorities can take back all those cities – especially the toughest Sunni insurgent bastions such as Fallujah and Ramadi.