Iraqi, U.S. forces converge on Tal Afar

Thousands of troops go house to house in militant stronghold

September 11, 2005|By Alex Rodriguez | Alex Rodriguez,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. and Iraqi troops began a ground assault yesterday to root out pockets of insurgents in the northern city of Tal Afar, a militant stronghold that coalition forces have struggled to secure since Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003.

Several thousand coalition soldiers converged on the city, moving from house to house through insurgent-held neighborhoods. Of the 17 battalions involved in the offensive, all but three were made up of Iraqi troops.

Though the all-out assault began yesterday, U.S. and Iraqi troops have ramped up their crackdown on insurgents in Tal Afar in recent days. On Thursday, Iraqi officials said as many as 200 militants had been arrested.

Iraqi Defense Minister Saadoun al-Duleimi said more than 140 insurgents have been killed in clashes with coalition forces over the past two days.

In anticipation of the assault, civilians in two neighborhoods controlled by militants, the Sarai and Hassan Koy districts, were evacuated in recent days. Late yesterday, Iraqi government officials announced that they had closed the Syrian border crossing west of Tal Afar.

"The terrorist elements targeted by this operation are guilty of blatant crimes against the people," Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said in announcing the offensive. "They want to deny the citizens of Tal Afar their future in a democratic and peaceful Iraq. We want to guarantee those rights. These operations are being conducted for precisely that purpose."

Tal Afar has a population of 200,000, most of them Sunni Turkmens.

Since the toppling of Hussein in April 2003, Tal Afar has been used by insurgents as a way station for supplies and foreign fighters brought into Iraq from Syria.

About 20 percent of the insurgents in Tal Afar are foreign fighters, U.S. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said last week.

U.S. troops swept into Tal Afar last year and routed insurgents from the city. Afterward, however, they left behind 500 soldiers to maintain order, not nearly enough to stave off a re-emergence of militants.

The situation in Tal Afar is complicated by sectarian clashes between the city's Turkmen community and its Shiites, which dominate local government and police.

"Because of that tension and the lack of security, many terrorists found fertile ground to increase their presence there, and the security challenge in that city has become more complex," government spokesman Laith Kubba said recently.

The latest offensive is part of a campaign to secure towns and cities near the Syrian border that have become part of a pipeline used by insurgents to bring in fresh fighters and equipment from Syria.

The villages surrounding Husaybah in Iraq's restive Anbar province have been heavily targeted by recent U.S. air strikes on suspected militant safe houses.

Al-Duleimi suggested yesterday that Qaim, another Anbar town where militants have recently established a presence, is likely to be next on the list of sites of major assaults, along with three other insurgency-plagued towns: Ramadi, Samarra and Rawah.

"We tell our people in Ramadi, Samarra, Rawah and Qaim that we are coming," al-Duleimi said. "There will be no refuge for the terrorists, criminals and bloodsuckers."

In Baghdad, the capital's airport reopened yesterday, a day after it was shut down because of a months-long contract dispute between the Iraqi government and Global Strategies Group, the British company that provides security at the airport.

The company, which is supposed to be paid $4.5 million a month, said it had not been paid for seven months. Global Strategies Group agreed to resume operations after Iraqi officials said they would pay half of what they owed, Global spokesman Giles Morgan told the Associated Press.

Talks between Global and the government on a future contract continued.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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