SAMARRA, Iraq (AP) _ U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major assault Friday to regain control of the insurgent stronghold of Samarra, trading gunfire with rebel fighters as they pushed toward the city center. The United States said 96 insurgents were killed.
Troops of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, Iraqi National Guard and Iraqi Army moved into Samarra after midnight in a bid to secure government and police buildings in the city 60 miles north of Baghdad. As they advanced, insurgents attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms, a military statement said.
Master Sgt. Robert Powell, a spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division, said 96 insurgents were believed killed during Friday's clashes. Dr. Khalid Ahmed said at least 80 bodies and more than 100 wounded were brought to Samarra General Hospital, but it was not immediately clear how many of them were insurgents. The hospital was running out of bandages, oxygen and other supplies, Ahmed said.
One American soldier was killed and four were wounded, Powell sai
It was not known if the push into Samarra represented the start of a larger campaign to retake several cities that insurgents have rendered ``no-go'' zones for U.S. and Iraqi troops. Officials have said that recapturing those cities is key before nationwide elections scheduled for the end of January.
The offensive came a day after a string of bombings across the country that killed at least 51 people, including 35 children in a series of blasts as U.S. troops handed out candy at a government-sponsored celebration to inaugurate a sewage plant in Baghdad.
Residents cowered in their homes as tanks and warplanes pounded Samarra. The sound of shelling mixed with the crackle of automatic gunfire continued into the morning. At least three houses were flattened and dozens of cars charred, residents said.
``We are terrified by the violent approach used by the Americans to subdue the city,'' said Mahmoud Saleh, a 33-year-old civil servant. ``My wife and children are scared to death and they have not being able to sleep since last night. I hope that the fighting ends as soon as possible.''
During the push, soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division rescued a kidnapped Turkish construction worker who was being held in the city. He was identified as Yahlin Kaya, an employee of the 77 Construction Company in Samarra.
U.S. and Iraqi forces blocked the roads into the city to prevent insurgents from moving in and out, said Maj. Neal O'Brien, another spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division.
As Iraqi forces secured the Samarra bridge, American soldiers observed insurgents in speedboats loading ordnance on the banks of the Tigris River, the military statement said. Soldiers fired warning shots and the insurgents returned fire, prompting U.S. forces to destroy the boats, killing their occupants, the statement said.
Smoke was seen rising from the area around the Imam Ali al-Hadi and Imam Hassan al-Askari shrine, raising fears for one of the holiest sites for Shiite Muslims. O'Brien said the shrine was not damaged and Iraqi forces had secured the site.
``Coalition forces and Iraqi security forces will do everything possible to protect the valuable site from damage,'' he said.
Along with U.S. troops, soldiers from the 202nd Iraqi National Guard Battalion and 7th Iraqi Army Battalion were taking part in the operation. Such formations would normally involve several thousand troops.
Water and electricity services were cut off, and troops ordered residents to stay off the streets as they moved from house to house in search of insurgents. A 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew was announced.
The offensive came in response to ``repeated and unprovoked attacks by anti-Iraqi forces'' against Iraqi and coalition forces, the military said in a statement. Its aim was to ``facilitate orderly government processes, kill or capture anti-Iraqi forces and set the conditions to proceed with infrastructure and quality of life improvements.''
``Unimpeded access throughout the city for Iraqi security forces and multinational forces is non-negotiable,'' the statement said.
The military said insurgent attacks and acts of intimidation against the people of Samarra had undermined the security situation in the city, regarded as one of the top three rebel strongholds in Iraq, along with Fallujah and the Baghdad slum known as Sadr City.
The Americans returned briefly on Sept. 9 under a peace deal brokered by tribal leaders under which U.S. forces agreed to provide millions of dollars in reconstruction funds in exchange for an end to attacks on American and Iraqi troops.
In recent weeks, however, the city witnessed sporadic clashes between U.S. troops and insurgents.
Masked gunmen carrying the flag of Iraq's most feared terror group, Tawhid and Jihad, surfaced in force in Samarra on Tuesday, staging a defiant drive through the streets.
Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group claimed responsibility for bloody attacks in Baghdad on Thursday, according to a statement posted on a militant Web site.
The authenticity of the statement could not be verified, and it was unclear whether the three ``heroic operations'' it cites _ attacks on a government complex and ``a convoy of invading forces'' _ included the bombs that killed the children.
Some of the children, who are near the end of a nationwide school vacation, said they were attracted to the neighborhood celebration by American soldiers handing out candy.
``The Americans called us. They told us: 'Come here, come here,' asking us if we wanted sweets. We went beside them, then a car exploded,'' said 12-year-old Abdel Rahman Dawoud, lying naked in a hospital bed with shrapnel embedded all over his body.
Deputy Interior Minister Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal said intense military pressure on insurgents holed up in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, was forcing them to turn their bombs on the capital. He said the day's attacks were ``definitely coordinated.''
``They are killing citizens and spreading horror. They have no aims except killing as many Iraqis as they can,'' Kamal told The Associated Press.
Earlier, a suicide attacker detonated a vehicle packed with explosives in front of a government complex in the Abu Ghraib area, on the western outskirts of Baghdad. The bombing killed a U.S. soldier and two Iraqi policeman and wounded more than 60 people, including three American soldiers.
U.S. forces guard the compound, which houses the mayor's office, a police station and other buildings, police 1st Lt. Ahmed Jawad said.
In the northern city of Tal Afar on Thursday, a car bomb targeting the police chief killed at least four people and wounded 19, including five policemen, police and hospital officials said. The police chief escaped unharmed.