TIKRIT, Iraq—As many as 1,200 American troops will have to stay in the former insurgent stronghold of Samarra indefinitely to prevent the city from slipping back under insurgent control, Iraqi officials and American military commanders said Wednesday.
The officials are still plainly savoring their surprisingly smooth takeover last week of the Sunni Muslim city, speaking with pride of the role Iraqi troops played in the quick seizure of the city of 250,000.
But they also said there had been less fighting than they had expected, and the low total of just 255 insurgents killed and captured during the three-day offensive suggests that many fighters may have fled the city or gone into hiding rather than face the 5,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops who invaded last Friday.
Iraqi officials say their success in Samarra will soon be followed by similar victories in cities such as Fallujah, Ramadi and most immediately in Babil province, south of Baghdad, where about 3,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops began a major operation Tuesday.
But the long-term American commitment anticipated at Samarra suggests that the battles for other cities where insurgents are both more numerous and more firmly entrenched could be bloody, drawn-out affairs.
It is even unclear how clean Samarra is of insurgents. Maj. Gen. John Batiste, commander of the Army division that led the assault, said "we're not quite sure yet" how many militants remain in the city. He told reporters, several of whom were flown to Tikrit from Baghdad for Wednesday's briefing, that raids were still being conducted to root out insurgents in hiding.
To prevent any chance that militants could recapture Samarra—as they have twice before following previous U.S. and Iraqi operations—two U.S. battalions, 600 provincial police officers and a special elite police battalion will remain stationed there, Batiste said.
"Over time that force will dwindle," he said. "Time will tell when that is."
Analysts said the Samarra operation was an undeniable tactical victory for the United States and the interim government. They questioned, however, its long-term impact and disputed Iraqi claims that it was a good template for future assaults. Some noted that while tribal leaders in Samarra sought government assistance to rid the city of insurgents, leaders in places such as Fallujah have been more supportive of the guerrillas.
"OK, you've gotten rid of the guerrilla control in Samarra for now. How easily can they come back? Is it a long-term victory or a short-term one?" asked Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan who has been a frequent critic of the Iraq war.
"If you think the only real danger is guerrilla control of turf, then it makes sense to go after them hard and fast," Cole said. "But my own analysis is they're fighting the guerrillas as though they were a conventional army, they're not doing actual counter-insurgency. They're not winning hearts and minds."
Cole and some other analysts believe U.S. and Iraqi forces run the risk of inspiring a widespread urban revolt by charging hard into cities, and inevitably killing at least some innocent civilians.
Some Samarra residents and a major organization of Sunni clerics have condemned the attack, and even the province's governor, who appeared with Batiste at a news conference Wednesday, said he was shocked and surprised by the operation.
"We didn't have any intention to take war actions. We were always hoping for peace," said Hamad Hamoud, governor of Salahuddin province. The insurgents, he said, ultimately left the Iraqi government no alternative.
The influential Association of Muslim Scholars, which has members at more than 3,000 Sunni mosques in Iraq, has been particularly critical of the assault, citing civilian casualty figures that far outnumber the 20 claimed by U.S. authorities.
"One question we have to ask is whether this kind of frontal attack helps or hurts the political goals of the guerillas. If their political goal is to have all the major cities full of people that really, really hate the Americans, then is this really a victory?" Cole said.
Iraqi and American officials have said retaking areas now controlled by insurgents is critical to plans for elections in January. Samarra was the first effort to do that.
Wednesday, American forces began a second assault, targeting the provincial towns of Mahmoudiyah, Youssifiyah and Latifiyah south of Baghdad, which have been almost totally controlled by insurgents for months. Ambushes of foreign journalists, aid workers and U.S. forces who passed through the towns have been routine.
Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the Iraqi interior ministry, said American troops were taking the lead in the new operation, but that elite Iraqi units were involved.
"We have special forces assigned to the ministry and they are there, similar to what happened in Samarra," Kadhim said. "They are cleaning out that area."
Iraqi and American officials also stressed the role of Iraqi forces in the Samarra assault. They credited Iraqi units with seizing several sensitive facilities in Samarra, including the Golden Mosque, and fighting bravely.
Just five months ago, Iraqi forces in Samarra quit their posts and disappeared as insurgents moved into town.
Between then and early September, U.S. and Iraqi forces stayed out of Samarra altogether. They cautiously re-entered the city on Sept. 8 after striking a deal with local leaders, but insurgents responded with 83 attacks in nine days, Batiste said.
The Iraqi government then decided to seize the city by force, a decision the United States enthusiastically backed, Batiste said.
Unlike some previous operations, Iraqi forces were integrated into the battle plan from the start, and given some critical missions.
A highly trained commando battalion fought insurgents holed up in Samarra's Golden Mosque, a site revered by Shiite Muslims, killing about two dozen in that operation alone. No U.S. troops participated in the attack, Batiste said.
A separate army battalion cleared the mosque's spiral minaret, and other units were engaged in serious fighting throughout the city.
Among them were the Iraqi National Guard 202 battalion, a reconstituted version of the unit that slunk out of Samarra in April.
Due in part to the 2,000 Iraqi troops, the insurgents were vastly outnumbered and quickly overrun, U.S. officials said. The U.S. troops made only limited use of aerial bombardment and artillery, Batiste said. That limited civilian casualties and damage to city buildings.
"Iraqi forces performed extremely well and we are very proud of them," said Batiste.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Hanna Allam contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.