SAMARRA, Iraq—The U.S. military and Iraqi officials gave sharply conflicting accounts Monday of a firefight on Sunday in the Iraqi town of Samarra, where the U.S. military Monday said it killed 54 Iraqis, not the 46 reported earlier.
The ambush, the conflicting accounts and the evidence that guerrillas were able to plan an ambitious operation in a populated area without anyone alerting the Americans all underscored the problem U.S. troops face in eradicating the guerrillas without alienating more Iraqis.
U.S. officials said Sunday's failed ambush on U.S. troops was bigger and better coordinated than other recent attacks on U.S. troops, which have been isolated ambushes using homemade roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and rifles.
U.S. military officials said the battle in Samarra began Sunday afternoon when dozens of guerrillas simultaneously ambushed two U.S. military convoys delivering bags of Iraqi currency to two banks east and west of the city.
"This was done in a concerted fashion," said Col. Frederick Rudesheim, who commands U.S. military operations in the city.
The attackers appeared to know the precise routes of both convoys, planting gunmen on rooftops and alleyways along the way. They had also positioned armed groups of 30 to 40 fighters at the banks and other ambush points. They erected a makeshift barricade to block one of the convoys.
Others were dispatched with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in cars to chase and attack U.S. troops, said U.S. military officials.
The guerrillas used mortars and roadside bombs in addition to small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.
The attack, however, failed, despite its scale and high level of coordination. U.S. troops returned fire with small arms, 120 mm tank rounds and 25 mm canon fire from Bradley fighting vehicles, said U.S. military officials.
Iraqis in the town say the death toll was much lower than reported by the U.S. military, although they also complained that the U.S. response was excessive.
At the main hospital, Iraqi officials said there were eight dead, including an Iraqi woman and a 73-year-old Iranian man. Among the 55 injured, they said, were elderly men, two women and at least 10 children.
"All the people injured and killed were innocent people," said Said Hassan Ali al Janabi, an information officer for the Samarra hospital.
U.S. officials said all the casualties were guerrillas. There were 18 wounded and 11 captured. Five U.S. soldiers received non-life-threatening injuries.
"We understand there is a discrepancy," said Maj. Gordon Tate, a spokesman for the Army's 4th Infantry Division. "We're confident of our assessment."
He said that individual commanders had counted the bodies of the guerrillas on the streets. Their bodies, he said, were likely recovered and buried quickly according to Muslim tradition. He added that he had no information on any civilians who were wounded.
At the hospital, they included a 7-year-old boy named Ali Abdullah Amin who was lying on a bed with a bloodstained bandage on his leg. He was walking with his father and older brother into a nearby mosque for the traditional sunset prayer when one of the many firefights broke out, said relatives.
His father was killed instantly, his brother seriously injured.
"I'm feeling pain," Ali moaned, his face contorting. "My leg hurts me."
In recent days, the guerrillas have been targeting softer, more vulnerable targets in order to undermine international support for the U.S.-led coalition.
Over the weekend, they killed 12 people from four countries: seven Spanish military intelligence officers, two Japanese diplomats, two South Korean electricians and a Columbian contractor. Small clusters of U.S. soldiers also have been targeted.
U.S. military officials said many of those killed in Samarra were dressed in uniforms worn by the Fedayeen, Saddam's most loyal militia.
"Many of the attackers had Fedayeen-style black longshirts, face cloths, and head dress or some combination of each," said Tate. "Several of the captured are being questioned to determine if they belong to a faction."
"These are just lies," said Khaled Abbas Beda 38, an Iraqi policeman. "Everyone who was wearing a kafiyeh (a commonly worn headdress) was to them a Fedayeen. This is ridiculous."
The battle's imprint was visible everywhere on Monday. Outside the mosque where Ali's father was killed, patches of dried blood scarred the muddy ground. Nearby were three bloody footprints, apparently of someone trying to escape.
A mangled white Nissan bus and five other charred cars that had been shelled were outside the hospital. "Down USA" was scrawled on the window of the bus.
Not a single U.S. soldier was seen on the streets of Samarra on Monday. Around the city, fresh slogans were scrawled on walls: "We will cut the hands of those who collaborate with the Americans."
About a mile away, the wall of Mothana Badie's family house was toppled. The cosmetics businessman, like other residents, said the guerrillas attacked the U.S. soldiers first. But the U.S. soldiers, he and other residents charged, randomly opened fire in every direction, targeting civilian houses and cars.
Badie's family huddled for cover in a shelter at the back of their upper middle class house as bullets and shrapnel shattered their living room windows.
"I don't know why the U.S. is attacking us," said Badie, who has a wife and two small children. "They say they are the forces of liberation. What kind of liberation is this?"
His sister Rodena, who is already bitter about the constant U.S. military raids around Samarra, said the experience only fueled her dislike for Americans.
"For six months we can't sleep because of America," she said in near-perfect English. "Is this justice? We want Saddam. We want everyone but America."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20031201 IRAQ CLASHES