NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq—At least 29 Iraqis, mostly policemen, died Saturday in a series of coordinated attacks in Samarra, while a convoy attack left 20 Marines wounded in a rebel-held area where U.S. forces are poised to launch what could be the biggest battle of the year.
Military officials were concerned that two car bombings and other violence in Samarra could signal that the insurgents plan to wage attacks across the region to divert American forces from the approaching battle to reclaim Fallujah and Ramadi from Sunni Muslim fighters.
With troops in place and training exercises under way, American forces were waiting for the go-ahead from interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Allawi said he would address a news conference in Baghdad on Sunday, and many expected him to announce the start of combat.
"I cannot claim that entering Fallujah will end the terrorist attacks in Iraq," Allawi's national security adviser, Qassim Daoud, told al Arabiya television. "But I can say that we will deal with a very big pocket of terrorism in Iraq and we will uproot it."
The military also announced the deaths of three American soldiers killed Saturday in a separate car bombing that targeted their convoy in Baghdad. Another car bomb aimed at a military convoy near Baghdad International Airport missed its mark and killed an Iraqi couple, according to airport security officials. Two Americans were wounded.
Maj. John Reynolds, attached to 1st Infantry Division units staging for the Fallujah fight, said military planners were watching the possibility of insurgents opening battle lines across central Iraq, especially the Sunni areas. Even if rebels aren't plotting to broaden battlefields, major violence in other cities could strain resources for the military, which already has 10,000 troops allocated for the battle in Fallujah, a rebel stronghold.
Recognizing that their loosely coordinated cells are no match for better equipped Marines and U.S. air power, Fallujah fighters decided last month to move the battle, according to several residents close to the city's insurgent-controlled governing council.
Insurgents in control of Fallujah previously warned they would strike in other places if their city were attacked. U.S. jets continued to pound Fallujah early Saturday, dropping five 500-pound bombs in the heaviest air strikes in six months.
The attacks in Samarra began when gunmen early Saturday stormed a police station, killing 12 officers and injuring one. Two car bombings followed: One entailed explosives planted in a stolen police car near the mayor's office; the other detonated near a U.S. military base. Later in the day, a mortar fell on a crowded market.
A U.S.-Iraqi operation in Samarra in September drove out insurgents, and the city had been relatively calm until Saturday.
Officials said Samarra was a model for how Fallujah and other cities in the region could be taken from rebels. The violence Saturday, however, underscored how difficult it could be to maintain peace and stability.
The reported death toll from the attacks ranged from 20 to 37. The dead included the local Iraqi National Guard commander, Abdel Razak al Garmali. Up to 40 people were wounded, including Samarra's mayor. Residents said American forces used loudspeakers to announce an indefinite curfew.
"We can't go out now because we're afraid we'll get shot," Amer Ghazi Hussein, a Samarra shopkeeper, told Knight Ridder in a telephone interview. "The security situation has deteriorated and it's now as bad as it was before the big offensive on Samarra."
Meanwhile, American troops pushed to the edges of Fallujah on Saturday morning, creating a perimeter of hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles and Humvees. Artillery shells, mortars and bombs rocked the city. A Knight Ridder reporter with U.S. troops to the north of the city didn't see evidence of enemy return fire.
The military reported 20 Marines injured in the convoy attack near Ramadi, but gave no further details. Two other Marines were injured by a car bomb near a Fallujah checkpoint, and a U.S. soldier was wounded in a roadside bombing south of the city.
The absence of a substantial insurgent counterattack reinforced the notion among military commanders that rebels planned to draw U.S. forces into narrow, crowded neighborhoods where they may have booby-trapped houses and lined the streets with hidden bombs.
Satellite images from recent air strikes on buildings in Fallujah showed dozens of ensuing explosions that probably resulted from homemade bombs lying in wait, said Army Capt. Sean Sims.
"When we see that, we're like, `Holy cow, that could be anywhere in the city,'" Sims said. "Everybody realizes that it's something that will affect the rest of our lives, in terms of seeing that type of combat."
He added that the military would be liberal in its use of "reconnaissance by fire," which means blowing up suspicious landmarks from afar instead of risking closer inspection.
Iraqi insurgents battling U.S. forces have received the blessing of an influential group of Saudi clerics. In an open letter to the Iraqi people dated Friday, 26 of Saudi Arabia's most conservative clerics said armed resistance against American troops and their Iraqi allies was a "legitimate right."
The scholars also issued a fatwa, or religious decree, barring Iraqis from offering support for U.S.-led military operations.
(Knight Ridder correspondents Shatha al Awsy in Baghdad and a correspondent in Fallujah who is not named for security reasons contributed. Lasseter reported from a military base near Fallujah; Allam reported from Baghdad.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.