U.S. and Iraqi forces have pushed into the insurgent stronghold of Samarra, north of Baghdad and taken control of key government buildings and religious sites. U.S. military officials estimate close to 100 insurgents were killed, and say one U.S. soldier was killed and four were wounded.
Heavy fighting began after midnight Friday and continued into the afternoon, as U.S. troops, along with members of the Iraqi army and Iraq's National Guard regained control of much of the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad.
Backed by air support, U.S. tanks rolled through the city, sector by sector in the largest coalition-led operation in the Sunni triangle in the past several months.
In the process of clearing buildings, Iraqi National Guardsmen reportedly arrested 25 insurgents inside a mosque in Samarra.
Reaction to that news among Iraqis in Baghdad was varied.
Sixty-year-old store owner Walid Rafiq says the insurgents bring shame to all Muslims when they use mosques in the course of waging battle. "All Iraqis now, when they hear about that, they're very sorry about that, because the mosque is only for praying, not for using weapons, or something like this, to fight anyone. So, we are very sorry about that," Mr. Rafiq said.
Samir Abdo Khaled, a 63-year-old driver, believes mosques should be completely off-limits to all combatants.
Mohammed Hassan, a 53-year-old tailor ,says he thinks it's just propaganda. "You know the propaganda of the United States and the Iraqi government. Maybe it's a kind of propaganda as a reason to attack the people in Samarra and other cities," Mr. Hassan said.
Coalition troops have made painstaking efforts to protect mosques and Islamic shrines from the ravages of battle, even though some insurgents have used them in the past for cover and to store weapons.
A senior Iraqi Interior Ministry official said the operation in Samarra marked the beginning of what he said was a "major military offensive" to wipe out Iraq's persistent and increasingly violent insurgency.
The official said other such operations would "soon" be conducted in an effort to clear the way for national elections to be held in January. He said trouble spots, including Fallujah, west of Baghdad, and the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City, are on the list of future military operations.