American forces with their Iraqi allies penetrated the northern city of Samarrah for the first time in a month yesterday in an attempt to recapture territory that has slipped out of coalition control in recent weeks.
The operation was part of a three-pronged assault on insurgent strongholds including aerial bombardment of targets in Fallujah and Tal Afar, a city on the border with Syria taken over by insurgents.
The bombardment of Fallujah, where US patrols have been unable to operate for three weeks, was an attempt at a “precision strike” at a building reportedly occupied by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, described by the US military as a leader of the Iraqi resistance.
“The target was a building frequently used by terrorists at the time of the strike,” a US statement said. “Three Zarqawi associates were reported to be in the area. No other individuals were present at the time of the strike.”
As with many other US air strikes described as precisely targeting terrorists, local doctors disagreed. Dr Rafi Hayad said eight people were killed by the air attacks, four of them children and two women.
Reuters Television pictures showed several children, heavily bandaged and covered in blood, being treated in Fallujah hospital. But a US statement said “initial assessments” indicated that there had been no non-combatant casualties.
The continued fighting up and down Iraq yesterday shows the fragility of Iraqi government forces unless supported by the massive firepower of the US army and air force, the use of which often leads to heavy civilian casualties.
The US air assault on Tal Afar, a northern city east of Mosul, killed 57 insurgents, US military sources said. But Rabie Yassin, the provincial health chief, said 27 civilians had been killed and 70 wounded. “The situation is critical,” Dr Yassin added. “Ambulances and medical supplies cannot get to Tal Afar because of the ongoing military operations.”
The only success for the US and Iraqi government was their return to the city of Samarra on the Tigris river north of Baghdad for the first time in a month. US Humvees and armoured vehicles entered the city as two helicopters hovered overhead. Major-General John Batiste, who commands the 1st Infantry Division, said he had offered insurgents a deal under which they would be free to leave Samarra or to remain in the city so long as they stopped fighting.
At a city council meeting yesterday, an interim mayor and acting police chief were named to serve until the general election in January. General Richard Myers, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that it would be months before the US and local Iraqi forces would be able to take back cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi, the largest cities in Anbar province, most of which is held by rebels.
Iraqi security service officers underlined their control of Najaf and the heart of the city around the holy shrine of Imam Ali yesterday by searching for the first time the office of Muqtada Sadr, the radical Shia cleric. Fighting has died down Sadr City, home to two million Shias in Baghdad, but US planes were used to detonate roadside bombs intended for ambushes.