SAMARRA, Iraq (AP) — One of the bloodiest engagements
since the fall of Saddam Hussein showed a new, deadlier side of the
Iraqi insurgency: stepped-up, coordinated assaults by groups of
guerrillas bent on battle rather than a hit-and-run attack, the
U.S. military said yesterday.

Janna Hutz
Residents of Samarra, Iraq, investigate the damage yesterday left near the Samarra Hospital where a bus and several vehicles were shot up and burned during a clash between U.S. troops and Iraqi fighters Sunday. (AP PHOTO)

“Here it seems they had the training to stand and
fight,” said Capt. Andy Deponai, whose tank was hit by a
rocket-propelled grenade during the firefight Sunday in Samarra,
north of Baghdad. Residents disputed U.S. assertions that dozens of
Iraqi fighters died, saying fewer than 10 were killed and that most
of those were civilians.

The well-coordinated ambushes signaled an escalation of
guerrilla tactics, although the attack in Samarra was unsuccessful.
A dozen cars lay gutted and wrecked in the streets yesterday, and
bullet holes pocked many buildings. A mosque and a kindergarten
also were damaged.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said that in one of the ambushes, a
dozen attackers dashed out of a mosque and opened fire on U.S.
military vehicles. They also fired from alleyways and rooftops.

“It was a large group of people,” Kimmitt said in
Baghdad. “Are we looking at this one closely? Yes. Is this
something larger than we’ve seen over the past couple of
months? Yes. Are we concerned about it? We’ll look at it and
take appropriate measures in future operations.”

Insurgents struck elsewhere yesterday. West of Baghdad, gunmen
ambushed a U.S. military convoy, killing one soldier, the U.S.
military said. The attack with small arms fire occurred near
Habbaniyah, 50 miles west of Baghdad, the military said.

A U.S. Army general said Iraqi insurgents in Baghdad appear to
have a central leadership that finances attacks and instructs eight
to 12 rebel bands operating in the city when to attack and when to
lie low.

But Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey said the instructions were not
specific.

“The manner of attack is up to the individual bands as
long as the efforts disrupt and discredit the U.S.-led coalition
and any progress it has made,” said Dempsey, who commands the
Army’s 1st Armored Division, which controls Baghdad and the
surrounding region.

He said he believed a recent lull in attacks in Baghdad stemmed
from an order to refrain from action during coalition offensives
against guerrilla targets.

The fighting in Samarra, 60 miles north of the Iraqi capital,
represented a greater level of coordination in the Iraqi
insurgency, although U.S. forces said they had anticipated the
attacks and blunted them with superior firepower.

Deponai said he was surprised by the scale of the attack on the
convoys, which were carrying bundles of new Iraqi currency, and
that 30 to 40 assailants lay in wait near each of the two banks
where the money was being delivered.

“Up to now you’ve seen a progression —
initially it was hit-and-run, single RPG shots on patrols. Then
they started doing volley fire, multiple RPG ambushes, and then
from there, this is the first well-coordinated one,” he
said.

“It’s hard to tell on the basis of one attack
exactly what tactics may or may not be changing,” Gen. Peter
Pace, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a
news conference with Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld in
Brussels.

“The fact is that in this particular case, about 50 or so
of the enemy did collect together for whatever reason they thought
was appropriate,” Pace said.

“They attacked and they were killed. So I think
it’ll be instructive to them for future analysis when
they’re thinking about what they’re going to do
next.”

The U.S. military said 54 Iraqis were killed. But Iraqi
residents and hospital officials said the toll was much lower.

Five American soldiers were wounded, the U.S. military said.
Soldiers said there was sustained firing at both banks for about 45
minutes, but that heavy fire from U.S. tanks and Bradley fighting
vehicles overwhelmed the attackers.

U.S. commanders said some of the insurgents were wearing dark
clothing and scarves over their faces, the favored garb of
Saddam’s Fedayeen paramilitary force.

Residents said Saddam loyalists attacked the Americans, but that
when U.S. forces began firing, civilians got their guns and joined
in the fight. Residents said they were bitter about recent U.S.
raids.

“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?”

Six destroyed vehicles sat in front of the hospital, where
witnesses said U.S. tanks shelled people dropping off the wounded.
Although a kindergarten was damaged, no children were hurt.

At least 104 coalition troops died in Iraq in November,
including 79 Americans. In terms of coalition losses, it was 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 Defense
Department. Of those, 298 died from hostile action and 136 died of
non-hostile causes, the department said. The total did not include
yesterday’s reported death.

On 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. Attacks Saturday killed seven Spaniards, two Japanese
diplomats and a Colombian oil worker.

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