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U.S. Says 54 Iraqis Died in Samarra Battle

U.S. Says 54 Iraqis Died in Samarra Battle

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SAMARRA, Iraq (AP) -- The U.S. military said 54 Iraqis were killed in the northern city of Samarra as U.S. forces used tanks and cannons to fight their way out of simultaneous ambushes while delivering new Iraqi currency to banks. But residents said Monday that the casualty figure was much lower and that the dead were mostly civilians.

By the American account, Sunday's fighting was the bloodiest combat reported since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in a U.S.-led invasion.

West of Baghdad, assailants ambushed a U.S. military convoy on Monday, killing one soldier, the U.S. military said. The attack with small arms fire occurred near Habbaniyah, 50 miles west of the Iraqi capital, the military said.

The U.S. military said attackers in Samarra, many wearing uniforms of Saddam's Fedayeen paramilitary force, struck at two U.S. convoys at opposite sides of Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.

Capt. Andy Deponai, whose company took part in the fighting, said the guerrillas had deployed about 30-40 men at each ambush site.

The scars of the battle were evident Monday. About a dozen cars lay destroyed in the streets, many apparently crushed by tanks, and bullet holes pocked many buildings. A rowdy crowd gathered at one spot, chanting pro-Saddam slogans. One man fired warning shots in the air when journalists arrived at the scene.

There was no U.S. military presence in the city center Monday. Shops opened, and residents moved around town.

At a news conference at a U.S. military base in Samarra, Col. Frederick Rudesheim said the American convoys were on a mission to deliver currency to banks when the coordinated ambushes took place.

"That was a given location that they knew we would go to," Rudesheim said. "This was done in a concerted fashion."

At the U.S. base, half a dozen suspects were seen with bags over their heads and their hands bound by plastic cuffs.

Many residents said Saddam loyalists attacked the Americans, but that when U.S. forces began firing at random, many civilians got their guns and joined the fight. Many said residents were bitter about recent U.S. raids in the night.

"Why do they arrest people when they're in their homes?" asked Athir Abdul Salam, a 19-year-old student. "They come at night to arrest people. So what do they expect those people to do?"

"Civilians shot back at the Americans," said 30-year-old Ali Hassan, who was wounded by shrapnel in the battle. "They claim we are terrorists. So OK, we are terrorists. What do they expect when they drive among us?"

Many residents said the Americans opened fire at random when they came under attack, and targeted civilian installations. Six destroyed vehicles sat in front of the hospital, where witnesses said U.S. tanks shelled people dropping off the injured. A kindergarten was damaged, apparently by tank shells. No children were hurt.

"Luckily, we evacuated the children five minutes before we came under attack," said Ibrahim Jassim, a 40-year-old guard at the kindergarten. "Why did they attack randomly? Why did they shoot a kindergarten with tank shells?"

Military officials in Baghdad said they haven't reported a deadlier attack since May 1, when President Bush declared major combat over. U.S. officials have only sporadically released figures on Iraqi casualties, and wouldn't say whether there has been a deadlier unreported firefight.

The U.S. military initially said 46 Iraqi fighters died and five American soldiers were injured. But Monday's statement raised the Iraqi dead to 54.

Residents of Samarra disputed those figures, saying at most eight or nine people died. Three bodies lay in the hospital morgue. There was no way to reconcile the accounts.

The scale of the attack and the apparent coordination of the two operations showed that rebel units retain the ability to conduct synchronized operations despite a massive U.S. offensive this month aimed at crushing the insurgency.

At least 104 coalition troops have died in Iraq in November, including 79 American troops. In terms of coalition losses, it has been the bloodiest month of the war that began March 20.

As of Nov. 26, 434 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq, according to the Department of Defense. Of those, 298 died as a result of hostile action and 136 died of non-hostile causes, the department said. This total did not include Monday's reported death.

Also Sunday, two South Korean contractors were killed near Samarra in a roadside ambush in what U.S. officials called a new campaign aimed at undermining international support for the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Attacks on Saturday killed seven Spaniards, two Japanese diplomats and a Colombian oil worker.

The bodies of the two Japanese diplomats were flown to Kuwait and arrangements are being made for transporting them home, a Japanese diplomat said Monday on condition of anonymity.

In Seoul, the South Korean government vowed Monday to stick by plans to send up to 3,000 troops to Iraq despite the killing of two South Korean engineers.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi reiterated Monday his vow that the attack on the Japanese diplomats would not alter Tokyo's commitments to send non-combat troops, provide humanitarian aid and participate in the reconstruction of Iraq.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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