Deadly month of violence for Iraq

At least 90 people were killed and 180 wounded on Friday as United States troops and Iraqi forces charged into Samarra in a first effort to reclaim troublespots before Iraq’s planned elections, while a shocked nation buried 34 children killed by car bombs.

In the United States, President George Bush and challenger John Kerry held their first debate before the November 2 election, with Kerry terming the invasion of Iraq “a colossal error” and Bush replying that “the world is better off without Saddam Hussein”.

Iraq’s hostage saga showed no let-up, with Jakarta confirming on Friday that two Indonesian women were among the 10 latest people to be kidnapped. Al-Jazeera television said the two were seized along with six Iraqis and two Lebanese working for an electrical equipment firm.

The Samarra operation, 125km north of Baghdad, started before dawn, with the US military saying 2 500 US troops and 1 000 Iraqi forces had seized the city hall and police stations.

It followed vows by the interim government to win back swathes of lawless territory in the Sunni Muslim triangle before November to prepare for the January poll.

“In response to repeated and unprovoked attacks by anti-Iraqi forces (US military terminology for insurgents), Iraqi Security Forces and Multi-National Forces secured the government and police buildings in Samarra,” the military said.

A military spokesperson said 94 insurgents were killed, while three US soldiers were wounded.

Dr Khaled Ahmed at Samarra’s main hospital said 90 people were killed and 180 hurt.

Clashes flared between gunmen and soldiers in the city centre around the gold-domed Imam Ali al-Hadi shrine, revered by Shi’ite Muslims the world over.

Smoke billowed into the sky as the soldiers and insurgents traded fire on the hallowed ground, but the Iraqi army’s 36th Commando Battalion secured the area and there was no damage to the shrine, the military said, adding that the Iraqis detained 25 insurgents.

A Turkish hostage was freed by US troops in the city, the military said.

By midday, US forces were posted at the city hall and police stations, while Iraqi troops were in full control of religious and cultural sites including the famous spiraling al-Malwiya mosque, built in the 9th century AD on Samarra’s outskirts.

The governor of Salaheddin province, where Samarra is located, cautioned on Thursday that fresh fighting risked plunging surrounding towns into violence.

Unaware of the impending battle, Governor Hamed Hamud al-Qaissy said that local Iraqi officials were close to brokering a deal to allow Americans to return to the troublespot.

In a harbinger of the Samarra onslaught, deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh vowed on Thursday that the US-backed government would assert mastery over cities like Fallujah, considered no-go zones for the Americans, so Iraq’s first free elections in five decades can be held nationwide.

With polls four months away, Iraq has been battered by car bombings and assassinations.

A double suicide car bombing at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Baghdad killed 34 children and eight adults on Thursday, capping one of Iraq’s deadliest month of violence that saw at least 585 people killed, according to an AFP count.

Adults and children in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Al-Amel, where the streets are filled with rubbish and sewage, were gathered for the opening of a brand new water pump station built by the US military.

On Friday, the working-class Baghdad neighbourhood was burying its dead and still finding parts of children’s bodies at the site of the blasts.

The attacks followed another car bombing west of the capital that killed one US soldier and two Iraqis, according to the military.

In the aftermath of Thursday car bombings, the group of suspected al-Qaeda operative Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi claimed, via its website, responsibility for three suicide bombings in Iraq. Its authenticity could not be verified.

Bloodshed also spread to northern Iraq, with four killed and 16 wounded in a car bombing in Tall Afar, where US and Iraqi forces battled insurgents in early September.

In other violence, a soldier with US-led forces whose nationality was not immediately known was killed in a rocket attack on an American military support base near Baghdad.

US warplanes earlier on Thursday raided what the military termed a suspected safe house of Iraq’s most-wanted man Zarqawi northeast of Fallujah.
The strike killed three people, local medics said.

Early Friday, nine members of Shi’ite radical Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army and three civilians were killed during clashes with US forces in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum, according to al-Sadr’s movement and medical sources.

Britain, meanwhile, hoped desperately to free 62-year-old British engineer Kenneth Bigley, kidnapped by his group on September 16 in Baghdad, along with two US colleagues who were beheaded last week.

Meanwhile, a self-declared French mediator arrived in Beirut after having claimed he had secured a deal for the release of two French reporters kidnapped by the Islamic Army in Iraq on August 20.

Against a backdrop of extreme tension in Paris the foreign ministry separately rushed an envoy to Amman. - Sapa-AFP