The aftermath of the weekend battle in Samarra, which the US has claimed was the deadliest since the war ended, today appeared murkier than first reports suggested, as residents of the central Iraqi city accused Washington of exaggerating its death toll.
Initial US statements put the number of Iraqi dead at 46, with five American soldiers injured, but the US today put its figure up to 54 Iraqi fatalities.
It also said that many of the dead Iraqis were wearing the uniform of the Fedayeen, the militia most closely associated with Saddam Hussein and most loyal to him
But the Associated Press reported that some in Samarra believed fatalities were much lower than the US's figures and that most of the dead were armed civilians.
An Iraqi boy gestures in front of a burned-out car in Samarra, 100 km (60 miles) north of Baghdad, December 1, 2003. U.S. troops said on Monday they had killed 54 guerrillas in a firefight to fend off attackers in the Iraqi town of Samarra. Residents claimed that most of the dead were civilians. Attacks across Iraq at the weekend also killed seven Spanish intelligence agents, two South Korean contractors, two Japanese diplomats and their Iraqi driver, a Colombian contractor and two U.S. soldiers. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
It quoted one of the city residents claiming that civilians had grabbed their guns when the US soldiers fired on insurgents who had attempted to ambush their convoy.
"Civilians shot back at the Americans," said 30-year-old Ali Hassan, who was wounded by shrapnel in the battle. "They claim we are terrorists. So OK, we are terrorists."
The battle, fought by the US with tanks and machine gun-equipped Bradley fighting vehicles, followed simultaneous ambushes on a US convoy traveling through Samarra on the main road from Baghdad to Tikrit.
Lieutenant Colonel William MacDonald of the 4th Infantry Division said the response had sent a "clear message" that US would use its firepower to stop such attacks.
The US has been stepping up the scale of its response to the insurgents in recent weeks.
The scale of the attack and its apparent coordination has, however, shown that rebels retain the ability to conduct synchronized operations despite the offensive.
At least 104 coalition troops, including 79 from the US, have died in Iraq in November, the deadliest month since the war ended.
Samarra is within the so-called Sunni triangle north of Baghdad, the heartland of Saddam Hussein loyalists.
The scars of the battle were today evident in Samarra. About a dozen cars lay destroyed in the streets, many apparently crushed by tanks, and buildings were strewn with bullet holes.
Six destroyed vehicles sat in front of the hospital, where witnesses said US tanks shelled people dropping off the injured. A kindergarten was damaged, apparently by tank shells. No children were hurt.
"Luckily we evacuated the children five minutes before we came under attack," said Ibrahim Jassim, a 40-year-old guard at the kindergarten. "Why did they attack randomly? Why did they shoot a kindergarten with tank shells?"
The weekend also saw seven Spanish intelligence agents, two Japanese diplomats, a Colombian oil worker and two South Korean engineers killed in Iraq.
US officials said insurgents were targeting citizens of nations that support the occupation of Iraq in an effort to undermine public support for the operation.
Both Tokyo and Seoul said that the attacks would not deter them from sending troops to Iraq.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003