Onslaught on Samarra escalates in 'dress rehearsal' for major US assault on rebels

By Kim Sengupta in Baghdad

03 October 2004

Independent

US-led forces continued their offensive on the rebel stronghold of Samarra yesterday, with the death toll rising to 125 Elsewhere, 12 people were killed in clashes in Sadr City, and seven died in US "precision strikes" in Fallujah. At al-Amel in Baghdad, funerals began of the 35 children slaughtered by suicide bombers while queuing for sweets from American troops.

The attack on Samarra, by more than 5,000 US and Iraqi interim government troops, is the first on a "no-go" rebel enclave. It is seen as a dress rehearsal to wrest back other such areas, including Sadr City on the outskirts of Baghdad, and, especially, Fallujah, where the Jordanian-born militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is based.

But those who have witnessed US aircraft firing missiles into packed tenements in Sadr City, and have seen the resulting carnage, treat claims of "precision strikes" on Zarqawi-linked targets in Fallujah with deep scepticism. Yesterday the US military claimed the casualties in Samarra were all insurgents, but doctors in the city reported women, children and the elderly among the dead.

"Dead bodies and injured people are lying everywhere in the city. The Americans fired at us when we tried to evacuate them," said an ambulance driver. "Later on they told us that we can evacuate only injured women and children, but we cannot pick up injured men."

Standing over a young boy with his stomach wrapped in bandages and his arm in a cast, Sami Hashem, a neighbour, said at the hospital in nearby Tikrit: "His pregnant mother was killed in front of him." On another bed lay a young girl who had lost her left foot. Some residents complained that they could not take their wounded to the hospital, as US troops were arresting any Iraqi male over the age of 15.

Thousands of people have fled from the city, 60 miles north of Baghdad, where US-led forces cut off power and water, and American snipers on rooftops were said to be firing at anything that moved. According to doctors at Samarra general hospital, of the first 47 bodies brought in, 11 were women, five children, and seven elderly men.

Even by the violent and anarchic standards of Iraq now, the past three days have taken a heavy toll on a population living in a state of siege. With 10 new hostages having been taken by the insurgents during the past few days, foreign workers are leaving Iraq in droves, as are many of the international media. Even parts of Baghdad adjoining the centre are now deemed to be too dangerous, belying recent claims by George Bush and Tony Blair that Iraq is getting better every day.

A storm has been caused in the US by the revelation that a speech to Congress by Iraq's interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi - who said he was leading his country out of "dark ages of violence, aggression, corruption and greed" - was written for him by the Bush re-election campaign team. But the news has caused little surprise here: most Iraqis have long decided that everything he does or says is dictated by the Americans. What must be much more worrying for the US and Britain is the overwhelming belief among ordinary Iraqis that their misery is also made in America.

The three car bombs in Baghdad on Thursday which killed 46 people and injured 208, the vast majority of them children, were the work of insurgents. Within 24 hours Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group was claiming responsibility for the "heroic operations". Yet at yesterday's funerals the bereaved families put the blame on the Americans who had arrived, uninvited, at the opening of a new sewage station and then attracted the little boys and girls around them by handing out sweets.

Around 14,800 Iraqi civilians are estimated to have been killed so far, and more than 40,000 injured. Also growing are the numbers of insurgents. According to the Pentagon's own estimates, their numbers have quadrupled this year to 20,000. General Andrew Graham, British former deputy commander of the coalition forces, said the figure is more likely to be as high as 50,000.

Even when there is a respite from the violence, civilians face a daily struggle to obtain the basics of life. Mr Allawi's reference to delivering Iraq from corruption causes particular derision. Under Saddam Hussein Iraq had a reputation as the "republic of bribes". Now, say the Iraqis, the situation is much worse. Getting anything out from car number plates to passports requires baksheesh.

Ahmed Mohammed Abbas, who runs an electrical business, said: "When we are not paying off officials, we are scared to go out of doors, because of the bombs, kidnappings and murders. We are living in a society without any law or morality. This is the gift to Iraq of Bush and Blair."

Iraq's ever-rising toll

* The death toll of children in Thursday's bombing in Baghdad was, at 35, the largest in any insurgent attack since the start of the Iraq conflict. To date there have been 129 mass-casualty bombings, leaving 1,382 dead and 3,469 injured. More than 100 insurgents were killed in the US-led attack on Samarra on Friday.

* The total number of civilians killed in Iraq since March 2003 is not officially computed. IraqBodyCount. org puts it at 15,033, the estimate of the respected US Brookings Institution is in a range of 10,000-27,000, while some Arab organisations calculate that deaths of Iraqi non-combatants exceed 37,000.

* The 77 US troops who were killed in September amounts to one of the worst monthly death tolls so far, and marks the first time that the numbers of US killed have risen for four months in a row. In all, 1,056 US military have been killed in Iraq since March 2003. Britain's toll is 64, with 67 military from other nations in the coalition being killed. So far this year, an estimated 750 Iraq police have been killed.

A WEEK OF CARNAGE

Sunday

A victim of US 'precision' air strikes on targets in Fallujah is taken to hospital. At least 15 others died

Monday

Three Iraqi national guards die in a suicide bombing in the northern city of Mosul

Tuesday

A British soldier on alert in Basra on the day an attack on a British military convoy killed two of his comrades

Wednesday

A car bomb explodes as a US military convoy drives past in northern Iraq. Six American soldiers are wounded

Thursday

Two wounded boys are treated after car bombs in Baghdad killed 46 people, 35 of them children

Friday

Iraqis inspect the damage after US air attacks in Sadr City, a Shia area of Baghdad held by insurgents