TIKRIT, Iraq – As many as 1,200 American troops will have to stay in the former insurgent stronghold of Samarra indefinitely to prevent the city from slipping back under insurgent control, Iraqi officials and American military commanders said Wednesday.

The officials are still plainly savoring their surprisingly smooth takeover last week of the Sunni Muslim city, speaking with pride of the role Iraqi troops played in the quick seizure of the city of 250,000.

But they also said there had been less fighting than they had expected, and the low total of just 255 insurgents killed and captured during the three-day offensive suggests that many fighters may have fled the city or gone into hiding rather than face the 5,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops who invaded last Friday.

It is even unclear how clean Samarra is of insurgents. Maj. Gen. John Batiste, commander of the Army division that led the assault, said “we’re not quite sure yet” how many militants remain in the city. He told reporters, several of whom were flown to Tikrit from Baghdad for Wednesday’s briefing, that raids were still being conducted to root out insurgents in hiding.

To prevent any chance that militants could recapture Samarra – as they have twice before following previous U.S. and Iraqi operations – two U.S. battalions, 600 provincial police officers and a special elite police battalion will remain stationed there, Batiste said.

“Over time that force will dwindle,” he said. “Time will tell when that is.”

Iraqi and American officials have said retaking areas now controlled by insurgents is critical to plans for elections in January. Samarra was the first effort to do that.

Wednesday, American forces began a second assault, targeting the provincial towns of Mahmoudiyah, Youssifiyah and Latifiyah south of Baghdad, which have been almost totally controlled by insurgents for months. Ambushes of foreign journalists, aid workers and U.S. forces who passed through the towns have been routine.

Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the Iraqi interior ministry, said American troops were taking the lead in the new operation, but that elite Iraqi units were involved.

“We have special forces assigned to the ministry and they are there, similar to what happened in Samarra,” Kadhim said. “They are cleaning out that area.”

Just five months ago, Iraqi forces in Samarra quit their posts and disappeared as insurgents moved into town.

Between then and early September, U.S. and Iraqi forces stayed out of Samarra altogether. They cautiously re-entered the city on Sept. 8 after striking a deal with local leaders, but insurgents responded with 83 attacks in nine days, Batiste said.

The Iraqi government then decided to seize the city by force, a decision the United States enthusiastically backed, Batiste said.

Unlike some previous operations, Iraqi forces were integrated into the battle plan from the start, and given some critical missions.

A highly trained commando battalion fought insurgents holed up in Samarra’s Golden Mosque, a site revered by Shiite Muslims, killing about two dozen in that operation alone. No U.S. troops participated in the attack, Batiste said.

A separate army battalion cleared the mosque’s spiral minaret, and other units were engaged in serious fighting throughout the city.

Among them were the Iraqi National Guard 202 battalion, a reconstituted version of the unit that slunk out of Samarra in April.

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