Iaqi government and US forces declared yesterday that they had "pacified" the rebel stronghold of Samarra, and stated that other "no-go" enclaves such as Fallujah would be recaptured before national elections due in January.
The Americans insisted that the estimated 125 people killed in the storming of the city were all insurgents. Doctors and local people reported women, children and the elderly among the dead, and that bodies were still being brought into hospitals.
There also appeared to have been discord over the military action between members of the US-sponsored Iraqi interim government. The Interior Minister, Falah Naqib, echoed the American line that no civilians had been killed and only "bad guys and terrorists" had suffered. It was, he said, a "great day for Samarra". But the Human Rights Ministry, in a letter to the Iraqi Red Crescent, described what happened in the city as a "tragedy" and called for urgent emergency assistance.
Local people in Samarra claimed that many of the 1,000 insurgents the Americans were targeting had escaped before the attack, and civilians had borne the brunt of the casualties. Of 70 bodies brought into Samarra General Hospital, 23 were children and 18 women, said Abdul-Nasser Hamed Yassin, a hospital administrator. There were also 23 women among the 160 wounded.
Families trying to bury the dead found the road to the cemetery had been blocked by American soldiers. One man, Abu Qa'qa, claimed he had seen dogs picking at corpses in the street. Abdel Latif Hadi, 45, said: "The people who were hurt most are normal people who have nothing to do with anything." Another resident, Mohammed Ali Amin, said: "There were American snipers on rooftops who were shooting people trying to get to their homes. Even at the hospital the Americans arrested injured boys of 15 saying they were insurgents."
CNN television was told by one man that his sister-in-law and her six daughters were killed when the vehicle they were travelling in was hit by an US air strike. Aid organisations said there was acute concern about continuing lack of water and electricity in Samarra and the difficulties faced by people attempting to seek medical treatment. More than 500 families had fled the city.
Major-General John Batiste, the commander in charge of the 5,000 US and Iraqi troops used in the assault, said: "This has been a successful operation ... Operations will continue for a few days before we are satisfied that we've killed or captured as many of the enemy that we can."
In Fallujah, where Jordanian-born militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is said to be based, and the scene of bitter fighting in the past, is seen as the next target for the US.
Mr Naqib said: "The Iraqi government is moving from a defensive position to offensive position to regain control over all of Iraq." It had been widely predicted, however, that an assault on Fallujah - expected to be a far bloodier enterprise - is unlikely to be authorised by Washington until after the US presidential elections next month.
According to diplomatic sources, Iyad Allawi's Iraqi administration is urging American commanders to press on with an assault on Fallujah. One of the main reasons, it is said, is the fear that if John Kerry wins the election on 2 November, he may not want to begin his term in office with television images of bitter fighting in Fallujah and American casualties. US air attacks continued on Fallujah in what is viewed as a "softening-up" process before a full attack. A coalition spokesman said: " A large number of enemy fighters are presumed killed" in a bombing attack yesterday. But residents in Fallujah said one air strike had killed eight people at the home of Hamad Hdaib Mohammedi, who was known for his opposition to the militants. Television footage showed the body of a small girl being pulled from the rubble of the house.
US forces have also been attacking Sadr City, a vast slum and a "no-go" area on the edge of Baghdad, with helicopter gunships and tanks; 12 people were killed in the past 48 hours. In Ramadi, US soldiers are said to have killed a woman bystander after being ambushed.