US under pressure to back claims over Iraq firefight

Pressure is mounting on the United States military to support its claim to have killed 54 Iraqi guerrillas in the biggest battle since George Bush declared an end to major combat seven months ago.

Scepticism about the US's version of the death toll has been expressed within upper echelons of the occupation authorities. A US combat leader who was involved in the battle has also denounced the military's account of the battle.

The controversy began on Sunday last week when Iraqi guerrillas attacked two US military convoys escorting new Iraqi currency to banks in Samarra, a Sunni town which is a hotbed of anti-US sentiment.

The US military said later on the same day that it had killed 46 attackers in a battle between insurgents and American soldiers. The army later amended the number of dead upwards to 54. It said its evidence came from US soldiers and commanders involved in the clashes.

Iraqi hospital officials and police say the death toll was far lower - eight with some 55 injured. Iraqi residents have given conflicting and inconsistent accounts of the battle including an erroneous claim that a mosque was hit by an American missile.

The US military believes the bodies of the 54 dead were swiftly collected and buried. But is questionable whether the guerrillas' families or surviving combatants would have risked recovering known members of the resistance in a town which is under constant US surveillance; the Americans have a base in Samarra.

The question is whether the US and the occupation authorities have misled the media.

The credibility of the US military was dented in April after it supplied inaccurate information about the killing of 14 Iraqis in Fallujah by the 82nd Airborne Division, when its soldiers opened fire on demonstrators . In the aftermath of the killings US Central Command said that it was unable to say whether any Iraqis had been killed. However, in Samarra the US army says its soldiers performed fixed procedures for counting those killed and wounded.

These include a battle damage assessment - in which reports are made by US soldiers as the fighting occurs and immediately afterwards - and an after-action report in which soldiers go through what happened in greater detail.

Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said: "We have no reason to believe that those were inaccurate figures. We stand by those numbers, they were provided by soldiers that were involved in the engagement and we see no reason to suggest those numbers are incorrect."