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Samarra victory aids morale of Iraqi forces

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.

A few grocery stores were open, but most businesses remained shuttered. There was no electricity, but water service resumed. Residents, some waving white flags, walked, saying the military had instructed them not to use cars.

Many took advantage of the calm to collect and bury the dead. Iraqi national guardsmen helped hospital workers put bodies into pickup trucks for transport to the cemetery. Ambulances picked up more bodies strewn in the street and orchards, and more corpses were believed to be inside collapsed buildings.

Residents, leery of straying too far, buried many corpses around nearby mosques rather than more distant burial sites.

The Iraqi Red Crescent Society set up about 30 tents on the road north to Tikrit to treat the wounded and accommodate fleeing families.

In Baghdad's Sadr City slum, five Iraqi civilians were wounded by U.S. tank fire, hospital officials said. The U.S. military had no immediate information.

The area has seen daily clashes and shelling as U.S. and Iraqi forces attempt to root out fighters loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

"Muqtada Sadr's military has been seriously hurt by the military efforts of the Iraqis and the coalition forces," Rice told CNN.

A key al-Sadr aide told The Associated Press that Iraqi authorities launched more talks with the cleric's followers to end the fighting.

Members of the former U.S.-appointed Governing Council met recently with clerics allied to al-Sadr and a representative of Iraq's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, said Kareem al-Bakhatti, al-Sadr's chief representative at the meetings.

"God willing, talks will be direct with the Iraqi government soon," said al-Bakhatti, the main tribal leader in Sadr City.

Al-Sadr aides said last week the influential cleric plans to launch a new peace initiative to pave the way for elections. Shiites, comprising about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, are eager to hold elections, expecting to dominate the new government.

The last round of peace talks deadlocked Sept. 18 over U.S. demands that al-Sadr's militia disband and disarm.

Roadside bombs exploded outside Baghdad and in Samarra and Baqouba.

One Iraqi was killed and three were wounded by the Abu Ghraib blast, an Interior Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

Near Ramadi, a U.S. military vehicle hit a roadside bomb but there were no casualties. However, witnesses said U.S. gunfire killed one women in a farm near the scene of the explosion.

The U.S. military did not immediately comment.