BAGHDAD - A heavily armored force of 3,000 U.S. troops followed by 2,000 Iraqi soldiers, police, commandos, and national guardsmen swept into Samarra yesterday to confront insurgents in what a senior Iraqi official said had become an "outlaw city."
The offensive in the city 60 miles north of Baghdad largely overwhelmed the rebel force in a night and day of occasionally intense fighting. One U.S. soldier was killed, according to military officials, who estimated insurgent fatalities at more than 100.
The assault, which began at dusk Thursday, was intended to bring a decisive conclusion to a long-running dispute over who actually runs Samarra, a city of 250,000. The police department and city council were co-opted months ago, officials said, by an insurgency dominated by former members of ousted President Saddam Hussein's government.
With U.S. armor leading the way for Iraqi forces that secured a sensitive religious shrine and a renowned spiral minaret, the operation was described by Iraqi officials as a model for other planned joint operations aimed at putting the interim government in control of several central Iraq cities before national elections promised for January.
"We will spare no effort to clean all Iraqi cities of these criminal gangs," said Qasim Dawoud, the government's national security adviser. "Through these operations we will open the way not only to reconstruction but also to prepare the general elections to be held as scheduled."
Iraqi and U.S. officials also have vowed to wrest control from insurgents in the Sunni Triangle cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, as well as in Sadr City, the large Shiite Muslim slum on Baghdad's east side. Iraq's deputy prime minister this week promised that, after weeks of largely futile efforts to negotiate political settlements, the trouble spots would be the target of military operations during the month of October.
Senior U.S. commanders had privately predicted such operations would come in November or December because of chronic delays in training and equipping the new Iraqi troops who would follow U.S. troops and assert civil order.
But Mr. Dawoud offered the massive strike on Samarra as evidence of the interim government's determination to move sooner.
"Our forces are in the process of growing," Mr. Dawoud said. "If this week we are not able to do three or four operations in the same time, probably next week or the week after or after a certain time you may see that we are going to engage many terrorist locations at the same time.
"This is an indication that our forces are growing fast, well trained, and in a very responsible way."
In Fallujah, where news of the threat was announced from mosques, fighters scrambled to man defensive positions on the outskirts of the city and plant mines on bridges.
In Samarra, attacks on U.S. patrols have been common. In early July, a car bomb attack on an Iraqi national guard station killed five U.S. soldiers and wounded 20. The insurgents, estimated by a U.S. commander to include perhaps three dozen foreign fighters, enforced a strict Islamic code, upbraiding young men for wearing tight jeans and punishing women who eschewed the veil.
Thousands of residents fled Samarra to shelter with relatives in Baghdad and elsewhere. American forces eventually blocked the main bridge over the Tigris River into Samarra, effectively cutting off the city from the country's main north-south highway.
"We recognized some time ago the police chief, the city council, and the mayor were ineffective," said Maj. Neal O'Brien, spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division.
Efforts to negotiate a political settlement through tribal channels peaked Sept. 9, when U.S. and Iraqi forces entered the city to "re-seat" the city council. But negotiations deteriorated, and on Tuesday, scores of insurgents marched defiantly through Samarra's center, some waving the black banner of a group headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who has taken credit for many of the car bombings and executions of foreign captives in Iraq.
American troops crossing the bridge into the city at 6 p.m. first encountered insurgents unloading ammunition from speedboats on the river below. In the ensuing firefight, four boats were destroyed.
U.S. warplanes and AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships provided air support as the infantry pushed into the city, skirmishing with insurgents firing assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, the military said.
Along the way, 1st Infantry Division soldiers rescued Yahlin Kaya, a Turk who had been held hostage by insurgents and had been photographed ominously surrounded by masked men in front of a black banner.
The Americans' main military objectives were city hall and other public buildings that symbolized political control. But Samarra's most famous structures are religious - and, as such, deemed off-limits to U.S. troops by their commanders.
The green-domed shrine housing the remains of two Shiite imams, Ali Hadi and Hassan Askari, was stormed at midday by commandos of Iraq's 36th Battalion. The Samarra raid caused little damage to the structure but resulted in the capture of perhaps 25 suspected insurgents, the military said.
Major O'Brien said a unit of "special police" secured a second sensitive site, the distinctive spiral minaret that rises above the city's Great Mosque. The tower, known as Malwiyya, dates to 848 and is the symbol of Samarra.
Three other Iraqi units rolled into the city behind the Americans, including the 202nd Iraqi National Guard, a battalion that the 1st Infantry has trained with since early August. The Iraqi army's 7th Battalion rounded out what Major O'Brien called "a good sized-Iraqi force."
"The important thing to remember is the Iraqi interim government asked us to do this mission," Major O'Brien said. "There's more work to do in Samarra," he said, mostly involving restoration of order so that reconstruction contracts could go forward, employing local residents, and developing a city he said was often neglected by the previous government.
Mr. Dawoud emphasized that the Iraqi government was urged into Samarra by its tribal elders and other community leaders - "responsible people" who gathered in the home of the interim interior minister on Sept. 26.
"Those people represent most of the families and tribes of Samarra," Mr. Dawoud said. "Most of them expressed concern about the security of the city and the torture and intimidation they suffered from the terrorists. "