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US Military Gives Details on Massive Iraq Firefight - 2003-12-01

In Iraq, the U.S. military gave the first detailed account of Sunday's massive firefight between U.S. troops and Iraqi insurgents in the central city of Samarra. There are conflicting reports about the number of people killed, with local police saying eight Iraqis have died and U.S. officers putting the death toll at 54.

The U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, which patrols Samarra and the region around it, is calling Sunday's fighting the bloodiest combat engagement since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April.

On Monday, several soldiers who fought in the incident told reporters in Samarra that two separate convoys, escorted by tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, were delivering money to banks on opposite ends of town.

Captain Andy Deponai, says as the convoys approached the banks, attackers opened fire simultaneously on both convoys. He says the ambushes were well planned and coordinated.

"We think we were looking at anywhere from 30 to 40 individuals at each bank site, and they had broken themselves down to squad and team size elements, so that they could attack each bank at all sides," he said. "They also had ambush sites set up on routes into and out of the city, and they had pre-positioned explosives, IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on our routes we take into the city, typically."

The 4th Infantry Division says its troops killed dozens of Iraqi insurgents and wounded 18 in the ensuing firefight, which lasted nearly three hours. The division says some of the attackers wore the black uniforms of the pro-Saddam Fedayeen militia.

Even though the troops were under heavy fire, commanders say their soldiers were careful to target only those who were shooting at them.

Many residents in Samarra say they saw some Saddam loyalists launch attacks against the Americans. But they say U.S. troops then began firing into cars, houses and buildings at random, killing and wounding mostly civilians.

Samarra resident Jamal Abbas says he was in his home when the shooting began Sunday afternoon. He says he rushed outside to see what was happening. He says he saw American tanks firing and soldiers shooting at random. He says the Americans destroyed his neighborhood.

There are also conflicting reports about the number of people killed in the incident. The police in Samarra say only about eight people were killed. But they say more than 50 have been wounded by shrapnel and stray bullets.

U.S. Colonel Frederick Rudesheim insists his troops did nothing wrong. But he says he worries that stories of U.S. troop misconduct could further inflame Iraqis in an area where anger and resentment toward U.S. forces have been simmering for months. Samarra, north of Baghdad, is part of the so-called Sunni Triangle, where anti-coalition resistance has been the strongest. "We're working as hard as we can to inform the people of Samarra about what exactly happened, because I'm as concerned about disinformation as I am about anything else," he said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military says one soldier was killed Monday when assailants ambushed a military convoy near the town of Habbaniyah, west of Baghdad, in the Sunni Triangle area.