Fri 1 October, 2004 02:21 By Luke Baker
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. forces have launched a major offensive on the rebel stronghold of Samarra after a series of horrific car bombings in Baghdad that killed 41 people, mostly children.
Residents of Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, told Reuters by telephone that big explosions were shaking the city, one of several places where the U.S. military has vowed to wrest control from insurgents to enable elections in January.
The residents, speaking early on Friday morning Iraq time, said there were more than two hours of air strikes and most residents were sheltering indoors.
CNN's reporter in Iraq, Jane Arraf, in a live broadcast from Samarra, said she was accompanying U.S. forces engaged in the attack, which she described as "an entire brigade-size operation into Samarra to root out insurgents."
Arraf said the forces, accompanied by Iraqi national guards, were moving "sector by sector through the city to secure it." Power had been cut off and her report was punctuated several times b y what she said were explosions of rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.
The U.S. military has said it wants to retake Samarra, Falluja, Ramadi and the Baghdad neighbourhoods of Sadr City and Haifa Street, which are in the hands of insurgents, by the end of the year to create the right conditions for the election.
In Falluja, 30 miles west of Baghdad, U.S. forces on Thursday destroyed a building they said was being used by fighters loyal to al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Iraqi doctors said at least three people were killed and eight wounded in the attack.
MANY CHILDREN KILLED
In one of the bloodiest incidents in the conflict, insurgents detonated three car bombs near a U.S. military convoy in Baghdad on Thursday. Most of the 41 dead were children rushing to collect sweets from American troops.
In two other attacks, a suicide bomber blew up his vehicle near a U.S. checkpoint outside the capital, killing two policemen and a U.S. soldier, and a car bomb killed four people in the restive norther n Iraq town of Tal Afar.
A statement apparently from Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group said it was behind the three attacks. The group has claimed responsibility for many of Iraq's bloodiest suicide bombings and the killings of foreigners taken hostage.
The Baghdad bombs went off as crowds gathered to celebrate the opening of a new sewage plant. It was not clear if the event or the passing U.S. convoy was the target.
The first explosion was followed by two more that struck those who rushed to help the initial victims, residents said.
Ten U.S. soldiers were wounded in the attack, two of them seriously, the military said. Iraq's Health Ministry confirmed 41 dead, 34 of them children, and 139 wounded.
In Washington, the Pentagon said attacks on American troops had risen to around 80 a day from 40 a month ago and said September was one of the deadliest months since the war began 18 months ago.
It said at least 76 U.S. troops were killed in the month, reflecting a steady increase in American deaths sinc e the United States transferred sovereignty to the interim Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi on June 28.
The conflict is dominating the run-up to the November 2 U.S. election, including Thursday evening's first debate between President George W. Bush, who insists progress is being made toward democracy there, and his Democratic challenger Senator John Kerry, who calls the situation "chaos".
The violence has raised doubts about whether the January Iraq election can take place, but Allawi, speaking in London, pledged it would go ahead.
Sayyed Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum, a prominent cleric from the majority Shi'ite community, said the elections should be held as scheduled because they could help curb violence even if all areas could not take part.
He told Reuters in an interview that delaying the vote might suggest Iraq's interim government wanted to hold on to power.