U.S. military officials said the failed ambush on U.S. troops was bigger and better coordinated than other recent attacks on U.S. troops, which have been isolated ambushes using homemade roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and rifles.
Iraqis in Samarra said the death toll was much lower. The city's hospital reported only eight dead, all of them civilians, although officials there acknowledged that the bodies of fighters might not have been brought there.
To many involved - both Iraqis and U.S. soldiers - the confrontation stood out as an exceptionally fierce battle. Witnesses described dozens of guerrillas in checkered head scarves brazenly roaming the streets in the heat of battle, U.S. soldiers firing randomly in crowded neighborhoods, and civilian bystanders taking up arms against U.S. forces once the fight got under way.
The U.S. officials said the battle began when dozens of guerrillas simultaneously ambushed two U.S. military convoys delivering bags of Iraqi currency to two banks east and west of the city of 200,000 people.
"This was done in a concerted fashion," said Col. Frederick Rudesheim, who commands U.S. military operations in the city, 60 miles north of Baghdad.
The attackers appeared to know the precise routes of both convoys, planting gunmen on rooftops and alleyways along the way, according to the U.S. military officials. They had also positioned armed groups of 30 to 40 fighters at the banks and other ambush points. They erected a makeshift barricade to block one of the convoys, the officials said.
Others were dispatched with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in cars to chase and attack U.S. troops, the officials said. They said the guerrillas also used mortars and roadside bombs.
U.S. troops returned fire with small arms, 120mm tank rounds, and 25mm cannon fire from Bradley Fighting Vehicles, the officials said.
Iraqis in Samarra said the death toll was much lower than that reported by the U.S. military, although they also complained that the U.S. response was excessive.
At the main hospital, the Iraqis said the eight dead included an Iraqi woman and a 73-year-old Iranian man. Among the 55 injured were elderly men, two women and at least 10 children, the Iraqis said.
"All the people injured and killed were innocent people," said Said Hassan Ali al-Janabi, an information officer for the Samarra hospital.
U.S. officials said all the casualties were guerrillas. Eighteen were wounded and 11 were captured, the officials said. They said five U.S. soldiers were injured.
"We understand there is a discrepancy," said Maj. Gordon Tate, a spokesman for the Army's Fourth Infantry Division. "We're confident of our assessment."
He said individual commanders had counted the bodies of the guerrillas on the streets. He said the bodies were likely recovered and buried quickly according to Muslim tradition. He added that he had no information on any civilians who were wounded.
At the hospital, Iraqis said the wounded civilians included a 7-year-old boy named Ali Abdullah Amin, who was lying on a bed with a bloodstained bandage on his leg. He had been walking with his father and older brother into a nearby mosque for the traditional sunset prayer when one of the many firefights broke out, relatives said.
His father was killed instantly and his brother seriously injured, the relatives said.
"I'm feeling pain," Ali moaned, his face contorting. "My leg hurts me."
U.S. military officials said many of those killed in Samarra were dressed in uniforms of the Fedayeen, Saddam Hussein's most loyal militia.
"Many of the attackers had Fedayeen-style black long shirts, face cloths, and headdress or some combination of each," Tate said. "Several of the captured are being questioned."
"These are just lies," said Khaled Abbas Beda, 38, an Iraqi policeman. "Everyone who was wearing a kaffiyeh was to them a Fedayeen. This is ridiculous."
The battle's imprint was visible yesterday. Outside the mosque where Ali's father was killed, patches of dried blood scarred the muddy ground. Nearby were three bloody footprints.
A white Nissan bus and five other charred cars that had been shelled were outside the hospital.
Contact staff writer Sudarsan Raghavan at 215-854-2405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article contains information from the Washington Post.