Samarra, Oct. 3 (Reuters): Waving white flags, Iraqis fled the city of Samarra on river boats today as US forces claimed victory over insurgents in the first step of an offensive aimed at taking control of rebel-held cities.
Iraq's US-backed interim government is hoping American and Iraqi forces will crush a bloody insurgency and take back all of the country before elections scheduled for January.
But the operation in Samarra, 100 km north of Baghdad, brought condemnation from residents about the cost in lives and suffering, and guerrillas in the fiercest rebel-held city of Falluja are expected to put up a tougher fight.
The US strategy of 'precision strikes' also came in for criticism from Iraqi President Ghazi Yawar who described the air assaults as collective punishment.
In a statement, the US military said warplanes had conducted 'another precision strike' in Falluja today, the latest in a weeks-long campaign of strikes targeted at Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his followers.
'Air strikes on cities are a very annoying issue and not acceptable in any way. I consider it collective punishment,' Yawar told Al Arabiya television network.
In Samarra, aid organisations said they were concerned about a lack of water and power and the fate of hundreds of families forced to flee.
One man who said he escaped the city on Sunday said a number of civilians had been killed. The man who gave his name as Abu Qa'qa said in Baghdad he had seen stray dogs picking at corpses in the street. He said he had seen several incidents of civilians being killed. Death was not limited to Samarra.
A hospital near Baghdad said it had received the bodies of a man and a woman, both believed to be Westerners, found by police yesterday. The man had been beheaded and the woman shot in the head. Neither carried any identification and doctors in the town of Mahmudiya said only that their features looked Western.
Around 3,000 US troops and 2,000 Iraqi soldiers stormed Samarra on Friday, determined to rid the city of its insurgent population.
'This has been a successful operation...We're very confident that the future of Samarra is good,' Major-General John Batiste, the commander of the US 1st Infantry Division, which led the assault on Samarra, told CNN. 'It is over in Samarra,' Iraqi defence minister Hazem Shaalan told Al Arabiya television. In 36 hours of fighting in the city, the US military said it killed 125 guerrillas and seized 88.
Residents said bodies were left in the streets, untended due to the fear of snipers.
Families tried to bury their dead today, but the road to the cemetery was blocked off by US troops, witnesses said.
Some people unable to flee the city by road travelled on small boats along a river holding up white flags as helicopters hovered overhead.
'The situation is very bad. No one can move, even ambulances can't move the wounded. All roads are blocked. If one road was open half of Samarra would have fled,' said Khalil al-Samiraei.
While the city was calmer, a Reuters photographer saw several burnt out cars and pools of dried blood on street corners. Dozens of houses were reduced to rubble.
The Iraqi Red Crescent Society, the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross, said it was trying to deliver food, water and first aid to needy civilians, and said it feared for the fate of at least 500 families forced to flee to areas north of Samarra.
Firdoos al-Ubadi, an Iraqi Red Crescent spokesperson, said her group and other aid organisations received a letter from Iraq's human rights ministry describing the situation in Samarra as a tragedy and calling for emergency assistance. The ministry was not available to confirm the letter.
Iraq's interior minister, who visited Samarra yesterday, said no civilians had been killed in the day-and-a-half blitz, a statement that angered residents who said they had lost family members, including children, in the fighting.