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In Iraq's court of public opinion, the truth can get hazy

Two widely conflicting accounts of an alleged ambush Monday in this flashpoint town 70 miles north of Baghdad reinforce just how differently each side can see the exact same event.

According to the US military, an American patrol "repelled a complex ambush" in which insurgents attacked the troops with machine guns, mortars, rocket- propelled grenades, and roadside bombs. Eleven insurgents were killed in the gun battle, it said, and there were no American casualties.

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Yet, local residents, the Iraqi police, and hospital staff here recount a very different version of the incident. There was no ambush, they say. And instead of 11 dead militants, the only fatality was a man selling vegetables on the side of the road.

The claims and counter-claims Tuesday resemble a similar incident last month - ironically in the same town - when US commanders claimed to have killed 54 insurgents in an ambush. Local residents said that less than 10 people had died.

Both incidents underline how the insurgency in Iraq is not fought on the battlefield alone, but - perhaps just as important - in the court of public opinion.

Soldiers from the 20th Infantry Regiment, part of the 2nd Infantry Division, were patrolling in armored vehicles through a suburb of Samarra when they saw a large flock of pigeons take flight, the US military said in a detailed statement released Tuesday.

"The pigeons were apparently used as a signal to announce the arrival of the soldiers," the statement said.

Moments later, two men on a motorcycle opened fire on the patrol with automatic weapons, using "children leaving school as cover to attack."

"Soldiers, in consideration of the children and a nearby mosque, employed snipers to target the attackers and successfully suppressed the enemy's ability to inflict damage," the statement said.

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The attackers fled, but the patrol came under fire further down the road from a group using an overgrown field as cover.

"In a simultaneous action, attackers detonated an improvised explosive device to the south of the patrol," the statement continued. "The patrol was then inundated by fire when, in a continuing coordinated effort, the patrol was attacked by former regime elements using rocket propelled grenades coming from the west and mortar fire that emanated from the north."

Reinforcements arrived and "both US elements fought through the ambush and eliminated the threat."

"A company commander on the scene confirmed that 11 attackers had been killed. After confirmation, Samarran residents moved the attackers' bodies from the area," the statement said.

The US military said that said that other than a civilian vehicle that was damaged by a rocket-propelled grenade, "there was no damage to any other property or equipment."

But a furious Maan Abed Raba, standing before the bullet-holed fa├žade of his home, has little sympathy for the American version of events.

The 47-year-old businessman says he, his wife, and their six children, ages 18 months to 13 years, were forced to take cover in a ground floor bedroom at the back of the house.

"We lay on the floor as bullets went through the walls," he says. "It was terrifying. They have no manners. They are invaders, bad people."

Ibrahim Hammoud says he witnessed the incident from his fruit and vegetable stand a few hundred yards from the damaged buildings.

He says that the American soldiers were patrolling up the road when a burst of gunfire was heard.

"Someone was firing in the air," Mr. Hammoud says. "It happens all the time here."

Another eyewitness, Latif Aswad, a brick seller, said the troops opened fire immediately in all directions. "They fired red smoke and shot at the houses," he says.

Nawfal al-Samarai, a doctor at the Samarra Emergency Hospital, says that one man, Ismael Humayed, was killed. Residents described him as a roadside vegetable seller.

"We received one dead man and two lightly wounded," Dr. Samarai says. "We treated the two wounded in outpatients and sent them home."

Even the local police here say the US military's account is "exaggerated."

"I was surprised when I heard that 11 militants had been killed," said a senior-ranking police officer here. "The Americans are lying. We know how many people were killed from the hospital."

The exact truth, however, remains murky. The residents here have little reason to back US military statements. In the past month, Samarra has become a center of the Iraqi resistance. Police manning checkpoints in the town wear masks for fear of being identified. And Apache helicopter gunships circle almost continuously a few hundred feet above the mud-brick houses of the town.