IRAQI and United States forces stormed into the town of Samarra yesterday, fighting fierce street-to-street battles with militants that left more than 100 people dead.
Thousands of people fled as air strikes were called in to back the assault to re-establish control over the town, which lies 60 miles north of Baghdad. Water and electricity were cut off.
Doctors at Samarra’s hospital said 47 bodies were brought in, including 11 women, five children and seven old men. Staff could not cope with all the wounded, and bodies lay in the streets.
The US military has pledged to retake guerrilla strongholds, such as Samarra and the western cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, by the end of the year, so that elections can go ahead in January as planned.
Hours after the attack began a new audiotape purported to be from Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, was broadcast on Arabic television, calling for Muslims in Iraq and around the world to attack Britain and "crusader America".
It followed Thursday’s al-Qaeda-linked attack in Baghdad in which 35 children were killed.
The Samarra assault began shortly after midnight with air strikes and artillery barrages pounding the mainly Sunni Muslim town, which had been a no-go zone for US forces for months.
The US military said troops destroyed several mortar sites, rocket-propelled grenade teams and guerrilla vehicles.
Guerrillas were seen unloading weapons and ammunition from two speedboats on the Tigris River in the town on Thursday night, the military said. Troops opened fire and destroyed the boats.
"In response to repeated and unprovoked attacks by anti-Iraqi forces, Iraqi security forces and multinational forces secured the government and police buildings in Samarra early in the morning of 1 October," the US military said.
Later in the day, he said, US military and Iraqi commandos had taken over Samarra’s Shiite Golden Mosque and seized 25 rebels inside. Iraqi troops also secured the town’s renowned spiral minaret.
The interior ministry said that, by midday, Iraqi police had control of the centre of the town, home to more than 100,000 people, and most surrounding areas. A Turkish worker kidnapped by guerrillas was rescued during the Samarra offensive, the US military said.
Qasim Dowoud, the minister of state for national security, said more than 100 insurgents were killed in the fighting and 37 others captured.
"We will spare no effort to clean all the Iraqi lands and cities from these criminals and we will pave the way through these operations not only for the reconstruction but also for the general elections," Mr Dowoud told a press conference.
The US military said one American soldier was killed and four wounded, while an AH-64 Cobra helicopter was hit by small-arms fire but was able to land safely at a coalition base near Samarra.
The attack came after a day of bloodshed in Baghdad, where three car bombs were detonated near a US military convoy on Thursday, killing 42 people, 35 of them children rushing to collect sweets from US troops.
An internet statement claimed responsibility in the name of the Tawhid and Jihad group of the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which beheaded two US hostages last week and is still holding the Briton Kenneth Bigley. It has been linked to al-Qaeda.
The militants were spurred on to carry out further attacks in the audiotape purportedly carrying the voice of Zawahri.
"We should not wait until US, British, French, Jewish, South Korean, Hungarian or Polish forces enter Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen and Algeria before we resist," said the voice on the tape broadcast on the television station al-Jazeera. "Let us start resisting now. The interests of America, Britain, Australia, France, Poland, Norway, South Korea and Japan are spread everywhere. They all took part in the invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq or Chechnya or enabled Israel to survive."
The voice sounded similar to previously recorded messages by Zawahri, but it was not possible to verify the tape’s authenticity.
The man on the tape said that Muslim youths should emulate the insurgents in Iraq, where US forces are battling an uprising against the US-backed government, and also in Afghanistan, where guerrillas from the ousted Taleban regime are stepping up violence ahead of presidential elections next month. The tape urged fighters to form a leadership to organise resistance around the Muslim world and told them to carry on, even if al-Qaeda’s leaders were killed or arrested.
"People of knowledge and experience should organise their efforts and form a leadership for the resistance to combat the crusaders," said the man on the tape.
Dutch armed intelligence officers raided the Amsterdam home of Paul Bigley, brother of the British hostage Kenneth Bigley, according to reports last night.
Police seized Mr Bigley’s computer and interrogated him about links with the group holding his brother captive.
They forced him to make a five-page statement and sent information from his computer hard disc to London for analysis, said the Independent, which quoted neighbours.