BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi and U.S. troops sweeping through the northern city of Tal Afar yesterday killed 15 suspected rebels and discovered a bomb factory during the second day of a high-profile counter-insurgency offensive.
About 5,000 Iraqi and 3,500 U.S. soldiers rummaging through the bombed-out mountain city found booby-trapped buildings, underground tunnels and large weapons caches but encountered little fighting during two days of operations. Residents estimated that 90 percent of the city of 200,000 had fled, many to a crowded tent camp.
As with similar offensives in other cities and towns this year, most of the rebels appear to have fled into the countryside before U.S. and Iraqi forces entered.
The joint operation has received extensive coverage on state-controlled Iraqi television. For two days, Al-Iraqiya network has shown frequent footage from the scene of Iraqi soldiers kicking in doors as they hunt for rebels in the city, which had been the site of insurgent attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces. In Baghdad, Iraqi officials have given regular updates on the fighting and announced plans to push into other cities along the border with Syria, including Sinjar, Rabiaa, Qaim and Akashat.
The offensive drew fire from some government critics who said that such operations served more to exacerbate tensions in the city with a mixed Shiite and Sunni population and divert attention from the government's failings to rebuild the country than to defeat the insurgency.
"What is going on there is nothing but a sectarian purge within an official cover," Adnan Dulaimi, a Sunni Arab leader, told reporters. "This kind of policy would bring nothing but more bloodshed, more chaos and more destruction to Iraq."
But in a televised news conference yesterday, Defense Minister Saadoun Dulaimi praised the offensive and the conduct of Iraqi troops.
"What is happening in Tal Afar is an example of what should happen in other troubled places of Iraq," said Dulaimi, a descendant of the same Iraqi tribe as Adnan Dulaimi. "The Tal Afar operation is a quality operation by all measures."
The government's upbeat assessments were reflected in the footage on state-controlled television. Iraqis often criticize the nascent armed forces for firing their weapons wildly into the air. But last night, Al-Iraqiya showed Iraqi soldiers in desert camouflage uniforms alertly marching through deserted Tall Afar neighborhoods and calmly guarding a group of about 20 bound, blindfolded and seated suspected insurgents.
The station showed a demonstration of about 150 residents of Tal Afar holding banners declaring: "We call on the government to kick out terrorists from Tal Afar." One young man told a television interviewer: "What we want from the Iraqi government is to kill those terrorists."
Tal Afar residents at the camp outside the city described dire conditions, with more than 550 families crowded into 500 tents set up by overburdened relief workers. They described demolished homes and said that children were killed in the fighting. They complained of being harassed by Iraqi soldiers and left without medical care in the camp, which they said soldiers would not let them leave.
Times staff writers Suhail Ahmed and Shamil Aziz, and a special correspondent near Tal Afar contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.