At least 96 rebels and one U.S. soldier were killed in the house-to-house fighting in the central Iraqi town, according to a spokesman for the U.S. 1st Infantry Division.
The offensive began after midnight when the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, Iraqi National Guard and Iraqi Army advanced into the city 60 miles north of Baghdad backed by armored vehicles. Insurgents retaliated with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire. By Friday afternoon, American and Iraqi forces controlled some 80 percent, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Sabah Kadhim.
Samarra residents were ordered to stay off the streets as troops went from house to house looking for insurgents. Samarra is considered one of the top three rebel strongholds, along with Fallujah and the Sadr City section of Baghdad.
Officials have said that recapturing the cities controlled by rebels is key ahead of Iraqi elections scheduled for January.
“In response to repeated and unprovoked attacks by anti-Iraqi forces, Iraqi security forces and multi-national forces secured the government and police buildings in Samarra early in the morning of October 1,” the U.S. Central Command said in a statement released Friday.
Iraq’s National Security Minister Kasim Daoud told a news conference that the push was in response to Samarra’s residents calling for help in dealing with insurgents.
“We will spare no clean 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,” Daoud said.
While some of the 250,000 residents fled the city at the heart of the so-called “Sunni triangle”, many remained behind.
“We are terrified by the violent approach used by the Americans to subdue the city,” Mahmoud Saleh told the Associated Press. “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.”
Iraqi forces also secured the Iman Ali al-Hadi and Imam Hassan al-Askari shrine, one of the holiest sites for Shiite Muslims.
During the offensive in Samarra, a Turkish hostage, who was identified as Yahlin Kaya, was also reportedly rescued.
The incident in Samarra comes a day after three car bombs in Baghdad killed 41 people, including 34 children.
An Internet statement from the Tawhid and Jihad group of Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for Thursdays’ violence. It is the same group that beheaded two American hostages last week and still has a third hostage, Briton Kenneth Bigley, who they are threatening to kill.