Nearly a week has elapsed since the American military issued the startling claim - puzzling even some within its own ranks - that its troops killed 54 guerrillas during running gunfights in the Sunni town of Samarra.
Official versions described how dozens of Fedayeen guerrillas wearing red or black checkered headscarves and dark shirts and trousers attacked troops in the bloodiest engagement since the US-led occupation of Iraq last April - and lost.
Repeated visits to the scene, interviews with Iraqi civilians and US soldiers, and close inspection of the battle damage by scores of correspondents have failed to eliminate several troubling and crucial questions. Where are the bodies? Did they exist? Or was this death toll - as some suspect - a fabrication which was intended to generate positive headlines for the US, after a disastrous weekend in which guerrilla attacks killed 14 foreigners, including seven Spanish intelligence officers?
An Iraqi man peers from a balcony of a bullet ridled apartment building in the center of Samarra, 110 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2003. Residents disputed U.S. assertions that dozens of Iraqi fighters died Sunday, saying fewer than 10 were killed and that most of those were civilians. (Khalid Mohammed)
All occupying armies lie, and so do their opponents. But Iraq is particularly perilous territory, given that so many millions of people believe the invasion was launched on the false pretext that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
Samarra is a small, angry pocket of resistance on the banks of the Tigris. And it smoldered anew yesterday as two Apache helicopters circled only a few score feet above the rooftops, not far from the gold dome of the Ali al-Hadi Shia shrine, just minutes before Friday prayers. People were infuriated by an incident a few hours earlier in which an elderly shopkeeper, Abdel Rasul Saleh al-Abassi, was shot on his rooftop. His relatives say he was shot by a US sniper while trying to repair a water tank.
Accounts of last week's battle differ, sometimes alarmingly. But on one issue, they have remained adamant: only eight people were killed in Samarra, although 55 were injured as the US army sprayed the place with gunfire.
"If 54 people were killed here we would know. This is a very tribal society, in which everyone in the area knows everyone else," Yahir Mahmoud al-Abassi, a businessman, said. "It just did not happen. It's impossible."
The people of Samarra are not alone in their skepticism. A senior official from the occupation authorities in Baghdad said, with evident exasperation: "We said this would happen ... it isn't right."
There is no doubt that two US convoys came under attack on Sunday morning as they were arriving to deliver new Iraqi dinars to two banks, the al-Rashid in Babel Kabla Street and its other branch opposite the al-Risala mosque in Bank Street. Surrounding buildings in both areas - which are about half a mile apart - bear the scars of fierce gunfights.
The US says troops of the 4th Infantry Division entered Samarra at about 11am, with a force of some 100 soldiers, six tanks, four Bradley fighting vehicles and four Humvees.
With them were two squads of military police and four squads of infantry. The convoys entered town at opposite ends, and both were attacked with roadside bombs. The attacks seem to have been well-planned.
Both the US military and Iraqi residents agree that the ensuing battles lasted for several hours. The guerrillas used small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars; the US army fired their 120mm cannon on the Abrams tanks, 25mm machine-guns mounted on their Bradley fighting vehicles and armored Humvees, and their own personal arms - M-16 rifles and pistols. As running battles spread through the town, some of the shooting was random.
At about 1.30pm Falah Hamid Salman, 48, a clerk, was in the front office of the Samarra Drugs Factory when a mortar shell landed near the front gates. Workers were queuing near by for a shift change. Amira Mahdi Saleh, an employee in her mid-thirties, was killed.
Mr Salman said bullets from passing US armored vehicles smashed into the reception area. It bears the marks of at least five machine-gun bullets. Other mortar shells landed further inside the premises, injuring Hossam Shakir al-Douri, 25, who later died.
As the fighting flowed back and forth through the town, with guerrillas darting through the alleys, Abdullah Amin al-Kurdi was mown down outside a small mosque in front of the local hospital. His 10-year-old son, who was with him, survived with leg and stomach injuries. Another man, Raid Ali Fadhel, also died there.
Not far away Salem Mohammed al-Rahmani, a businessman, was inspecting his premises just a few yards from the Shia mosque when the US forces swept in and - he says - posted snipers on the roof. This was the scene of one of the ambushed bank deliveries. A firefight erupted, which injured Gazal Jado'a al-Bazi and killed Fatah Allah Hijazi, a 71-year-old Iranian pilgrim.
What happened in Samarra was a battle - and a big one at that. But the evidence suggests that the victims were mostly civilians, not guerrillas, and that their numbers were far fewer than US officials have said.
The US army is increasingly sensitive on the subject. Lt-Col George Krivo angrily accosted The Independent on Wednesday. "I can tell you one thing - we trust our soldiers!" he said, half-shouting.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd