| A gang of kidnappers after they were arrested by the police officers in Qurna, 80 km north of Basra. (Reuters)
Samarra (Iraq), Oct. 2 (Reuters): US and Iraqi forces tightened their grip on the rebel stronghold of Samarra today with one of the largest offensives since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Sporadic gunfire could be heard in the city centre, near a revered mosque, but otherwise an uneasy calm appeared to settle a day-and-a-half after 5,000 US and Iraqi troops, backed by artillery and fighter jets, launched the operation.
But underlining the problems faced by Iraq's government and its US allies as they try to win over an often restive population, an Iraqi Islamist group beheaded an Iraqi contractor it said was working for US forces, an Internet video showed.
'We say to all those who even consider working with the crusader forces that they should repent,' the Ansar al-Sunna group said on the video posted on an Islamist website.
The death toll from fighting continued to rise. A doctor in Samarra, some 100 km north of Baghdad, said five dead were brought in overnight, and 20 people treated for wounds. It was not clear if they were civilians or fighters.
More than 80 bodies were brought in yesterday. Others were left in the streets, health workers too busy to collect them. The Iraqi Red Crescent Society said it had evacuated 25 wounded people late yesterday, including a young girl who later died. Some residents fled, fearing for their lives.
'It took me three hours to get to a safe place,' said Abu Muhammad, a labourer, standing on Samarra's outskirts today as a thick plume of dark smoke rose up behind him. 'Not all of us are the resistance. You can see the resistance. Go see the bodies in the streets of Samarra.
'Snipers are positioned over houses. They shoot at us when we try to go out,' he said, not specifying whether he meant American or insurgent snipers.
The US military said in a statement that Iraqi National Guards had 'secured' Samarra's hospital and a team of 70 Iraqi volunteers had arrived from Tikrit, 75 km to the north, to help deal with the scores of wounded.
The US military has vowed to wrest all rebel-held areas from insurgents before the end of the year so elections can be held in January. Iraq's defence minister said the offensive would begin in October and Samarra appears the first major step.
In operations yesterday, US-led forces said they killed more than 100 guerrillas in air strikes and street-to-street combat, while around 35 insurgents were captured, 25 of them inside the Golden Mosque, a revered ancient Shia shrine.
Iraqi forces stormed the mosque to offset any local anger at US troops entering holy ground. Seizing the shrine prevented insurgents holing up there as they did for weeks in Najaf.
As well as Samarra, a town of about 100,000, US forces will have to retake Falluja and Ramadi, west of Baghdad, and several areas of Baghdad, including the Shia district of Sadr City, if the nation is to be pacified before elections.
During yesterday's offensive in Samarra, a Turkish worker kidnapped by guerrillas was rescued, the US military said. Since April, more than 140 foreigners have been seized in Iraq and about 30 have been killed.
At least three Westerners are still held, including French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot.
The other is Briton Kenneth Bigley, a 62-year-old engineer seized two weeks ago .