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125 rebels die in fierce fighting

Americans call attack on insurgent stronghold a success

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Army soldiers patrol in Samarra, Iraq, Saturday. Sporadic fighting continued on the second day of a major U.S. military incursion.

Army soldiers patrol in Samarra, Iraq, Saturday. Sporadic fighting continued on the second day of a major U.S. military incursion.

Jim MacMillan, Associated Press

SAMARRA, Iraq — Afraid to stray from home, residents buried the dead in their gardens Saturday as U.S. and Iraqi forces battled pockets of resistance in this former insurgent stronghold, where the American military said 125 rebels were killed and 88 captured in two days of fierce fighting.

The American commander declared the operation a successful first step in a major push to wrest key areas from insurgent control before January elections.

Elsewhere the rebels struck back, wounding at least five U.S. forces in three separate bomb attacks. In the latest in a string of kidnappings, militants claimed to have abducted and beheaded an Iraqi construction contractor working on a U.S. base.

U.S. and Iraqi commanders said they controlled 70 percent of Samarra after some 5,000 troops — including 2,000 Iraqis and 3,000 Americans — swept into the city early Friday. Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan claimed success, telling the Arab television station Al-Arabiya: "It is over in Samarra."

Maj. Gen. John Batiste, commander of the 1st Infantry Division, said he was "very confident that the future of Samarra is good."

"This is great news for the people of Samarra, 200,000 people who have been held captive, hostage if you will, by just a couple of hundred thugs," he told CNN.

Batiste praised the performance of Iraqi troops, saying they "really handled themselves well" as they secured the hospital, a revered shrine and centuries-old minaret.

"They're getting better and better trained, better and better equipped. It ought to give us a lot of confidence," he said.

Building a strong Iraqi force that can take over security from American troops is a cornerstone of the U.S. strategy to restore peace in Iraq. But during April offenses in Fallujah and Najaf, the fledgling Iraqi troops melted away at the first sign of confrontation, either fleeing or joining the insurgents.

"The more operations they conduct, the more confidence they will gain, and the better they will perform," said Maj. Neal E. O'Brian, a military spokesman who was in Samarra on Saturday.

Samarra, 60 miles northwest of Baghdad, appeared mostly calm Saturday, but pockets of resistance persisted, with heavy tank shelling and exchanges of machine gun fire erupting in early evening in the northern part of the city.

Batiste said U.S. forces would conduct mopping up operations for at least the next few days before handing over primary responsibility to Iraqi police and National Guard units.

A car bomb targeting a U.S. Marine convoy also exploded east of Fallujah, another rebel-held city west of Baghdad, the military said. One Marine was wounded in the attack.

Later, U.S.-led forces attacked a building where they said insurgents were receiving military style training on the outskirts of the city.

The attack — the latest in a series of strikes aimed at insurgents believed to have links to Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — killed one man and wounded his wife, brother and two young sons.

Witnesses said other air attacks followed early Sunday but no immediate details were available.

Another car bomb exploded Saturday near a U.S. convoy outside the northern city of Mosul, wounding two American soldiers, the military said.

The U.S. command says it has inflicted significant damage on al-Zarqawi's terror network during weeks of "precision strikes" against suspected terrorist hideouts in Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad.

U.S. forces also clashed Saturday with Shiite Muslim insurgents in Baghdad's Sadr City, police and witnesses said. Two U.S. soldiers were wounded when a roadside bomb hit their armored personnel carrier, the military said.

The vast slum has been the scene of almost daily clashes and U.S. airstrikes against armed followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, since three weeks of fighting between his Mahdi Army militia and U.S and Iraqi troops ended last month in Najaf.

But aides to the cleric have indicated in recent weeks that he has started to organize his followers to join Iraq's political process as agreed under a peace deal brokered by Iraq's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Several political parties have begun courting the influential cleric to forge possible alliances. These include the Shiite Dawa party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the largest Shiite groups. There have also been approaches by Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial former exile who heads the Iraqi National Congress.

Late Friday, a U.S. soldier was killed by small arms fire in Baghdad, the military said.

Insurgent groups have increasingly turned to bombings and kidnappings in a 17-month campaign to undermine the U.S.-backed interim government and drive the United States and its allies out of Iraq.

A gruesome video surfaced on the Internet Saturday purporting to show the beheading of an Iraqi hostage identified as Nafie Dawoud Ibrahim. The Ansar al-Sunnah Army, a Sunni militant group, claimed responsibility for the killing, saying the man was an Iraqi contractor at the U.S. military base of Al-Taji, north of Baghdad. It vowed to hunt down others helping the U.S. military.

The authenticity of the tape could not be verified. The same group has claimed responsibility for the killing of 12 Nepalese workers and three Iraqi Kurds.

More than 140 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq since April, some as political leverage, others for ransom. At least 26 hostages have been killed.

Residents in Samarra said American snipers on rooftops in the center fired at anybody appearing in the streets below on Saturday.

"There are dead people that we cannot take for burial and they are being buried in the gardens of their homes," said Ali Abdul-Latif, a 19-year-old high school student.

Marine Maj. Jay Antonelli, a command spokesman in Baghdad, said U.S. soldiers did not fire at civilians. "We had snipers firing at anti-Iraqi forces who were armed and those observed at mortar positions," he said.

At Samarra General Hospital, Dr. Khalid Ahmed said at least 80 bodies and more than 100 wounded were brought to the facility Friday, but it was not immediately clear how many were insurgents.

"Dead bodies and injured people are everywhere in the city and when we tried to evacuate them, the Americans fired at us," an ambulance driver told Associated Press Television News. "Later on they told us that we can evacuate only injured women and children and we are not allowed to pick up injured men."

Wounded people, mostly women and children, lay on beds at the Tikrit Teaching Hospital.

"His pregnant mother was killed," said Sami Hashem, standing over a young boy whose belly was covered in bandages. Nearby was a young girl who lost her left foot.

Shaalan, the defense minister, said Iraqi forces carried out most of the fighting and U.S. troops "only provided cover for our operations." He said up to $40 million was being allocated for reconstruction and compensation to residents of the embattled city.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have promised a series of major military operations to retake other parts of the country ahead of the elections due by Jan. 31.

Ramadi, Samarra and Fallujah form part of the Sunni heartland, where resistance to the U.S.-backed government has been the fiercest. It is feared that inability to stage balloting in the so-called Sunni Triangle would severely mar election results. Baghdad's Sadr City, a Shiite stronghold, is also on U.S. commanders' hit list.

Still, Pentagon officials and defense analysts have said a U.S. military offensive into difficult-to-capture cities might still be delayed, or avoided altogether, if the United States and Iraq decide to settle for partial participation in elections.

But Iraq's Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib said that Iraqi forces "came out of a defensive position to an offensive position" during the Samarra operation.

"We want to protect our citizens and to have all Iraqis participate in the elections in Iraq by the end of January," al-Naqib told reporters in Samarra.

Italy's deputy premier Gianfranco Fini, meanwhile, suggested that his country could withdraw its 3,000 troops from Iraq after the elections, saying they will no longer be needed when a representative government is in place.