US and Iraqi forces launched a major attack against the insurgent stronghold of Samarra early today, securing government and police buildings in the city, the US command said.
The offensive came in response to "repeated and unprovoked attacks by anti-Iraqi forces" against Iraqi and coalition forces, the military said in a statement. Its aim was to kill or capture insurgents in the city, 60 miles north of Baghdad.
"Unimpeded access throughout the city for Iraqi Security Forces and Multi-National Forces is nonnegotiable," said the statement, which was issued early yesterday in Baghdad.
Troops of the US First Infantry Division, Iraq's national guard and its regular army took part in the nighttime assault.
It said insurgent attacks and acts of intimidation against the people of Samarra had undermined the security situation in the city, regarded as one of the top three insurgency strongholds in Iraq, along with Fallujah and the Baghdad slum known as Sadr City.
Along with US troops, soldiers from the 202d Iraqi National Guard Battalion and Seventh Iraqi Army Battalion were taking part in the operation.
The statement provided no further details of the fighting. An earlier report by CNN said 2,000 rebels were believed to be holed up in the city and that tanks and jets were being used as troops took the city "sector by sector."
Reuters reported that a hospital official said at least 21 people were killed and 35 were wounded in the offensive.
Earlier yesterday, US forces attacked a suspected safehouse used by an Al Qaeda-linked group in Fallujah, the military said.
Intelligence reports indicated the house was being used by followers of Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the military said in a statement, adding that the followers were planning attacks against US-led forces and Iraqi citizens.
Also, there were conflicting accounts about the deaths of at least six people near Fallujah on Wednesday.
Iraqis who identified themselves as witnesses said US forces opened fire on a car passing Fallujah on the road from Baghdad. The driver was shot in the head and lost control of the car, which plunged into a canal, said Hussein Alwan, who lives near the scene.
A man was brought to Fallujah General Hospital late Wednesday with a bullet wound to the head, Dr. Ahmed Khalil said. Later, the bodies of two women and five children were also brought to the hospital after being recovered from the submerged vehicle, hospital officials and witnesses said.
But the US military said it fired only warning shots at a vehicle driving erratically toward a convoy on the road between Ramadi and Fallujah.