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Largest firefight since war ends with dozens of Iraqis dead

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In the biggest battle since U.S. forces captured Baghdad in April, Iraqi guerrillas ambushed two U.S. convoys in simultaneous attacks in the northern Iraqi city of Samarra on Sunday. But U.S. troops fought them off, killing 46 Iraqis and wounding at least 18, U.S. military officials said.

Eight Iraqi prisoners were captured, while five American soldiers and a civilian traveling in the convoy suffered non-life-threatening injuries, the U.S. military said. Many of those killed were wearing the uniforms of the Saddam Fedayeen, Saddam Hussein's irregular militia.

"This is a true indication that we are bringing the fight to the enemy," said Master Sgt. Robert Cargie of the Army's 4th Infantry Division.

Guerrillas also killed two U.S. soldiers and wounded a third on Sunday near Husaybah, along Iraq's border with Syria. That brought the number of coalition deaths to 104 in November, the bloodiest month since the U.S.-led invasion began on March 20.

The ambushes appeared to be an effort to mount larger attacks on Americans at the same time guerrillas are striking vulnerable U.S. allies in an effort to drive a wedge between the United States and its coalition partners.

Iraqi guerrillas killed 12 people from four countries this weekend. The dead included seven Spanish military intelligence officers killed in an ambush on Saturday. Their bodies were returned to Spain on Sunday. Two South Korean electrical contractors and a Colombian civilian working for a U.S. military contractor also were killed over the weekend.

A U.S. official in Washington, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he isn't a designated spokesman, said the appearance on Sunday of the Fedayeen uniforms may be an effort to instill fear in Iraqis that Saddam may return to power.

It also may force the Bush administration to treat captured, uniform-wearing Fedayeen as prisoners of war under the Geneva conventions rather than as "enemy combatants" with no rights, the official said.

Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, is in the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle, the arc of territory where opposition to the coalition has been most violent.

The two convoys were attacked from rooftops and alleyways at around 1.30 p.m. with mortars, roadside bombs, and rocket-propelled grenades as they rolled into Samarra. The guerrilla attacks came from the east and the west of the city, said U.S. military officials.

The guerillas tried to block the road with a makeshift barricade, but the convoy managed to push through. U.S. troops using small arms, 120mm tank rounds and 25mm cannon fire from Bradley fighting vehicles repelled the attackers, with exchanges lasting for many minutes, said Cargie. The soldiers destroyed three building the guerrillas were using to stage their attacks.

In a separate attack nearly an hour later, four men with automatic rifles ambushed another U.S. convoy, Cargie said. U.S. troops again returned fire, injuring all of the attackers. Cargie said the soldiers found AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in their black BMW.

He said U.S. convoy procedures did not need to be changed.

"Our convoy procedures are appropriate for the nature of the environment, and this is an indication that it is so," said Cargie.

Gunmen killed two Japanese diplomats as they stopped to buy food near Saddam's hometown of Tikrit on Saturday. On Sunday, the Colombian contractor was killed and two others wounded when gunmen fired on their convoy near the southern town of Balad, said U.S. officials.

The two South Korean electricians, who also worked for a U.S. firm, were killed near Tikrit, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.

"We think this is a change on the part of the enemy," said Brig Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the coalition's chief military spokesman. "He realizes that attacking a military target will lead to his death or capture, and going against soft targets is probably an easier way to achieve what he's trying to achieve."

In the case of the Spaniards and Japanese, it appeared that the guerrillas didn't achieve their goal. On Sunday, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said his nation's 1,300 troops would stay in Iraq. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Japan would keep its pledge to send soldiers to help rebuild Iraq.

"Our freedom is threatened by all terrorists," Aznar said in a televised address. "We know that a withdrawal would be the worst route we could take."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.