US and Iraqi troops launch huge assault on northern insurgent stronghold

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The Independent Online

American and Iraqi troops used armoured vehicles to batter down the walls of houses yesterday, as they launched an assault on the insurgent stronghold of Tal Afar in northern Iraq.

Doctors in the local hospital confirmed that the long-expected offensive started at dawn yesterday with US air strikes on the centre of Tal Afar, which is encircled by American tanks. There was heavy gunfire in the Sarai district, the oldest part of the city.

With its narrow streets and twisting alleyways, "I can see why the terrorists chose this place for a fight. It's like a big tunnel of death," said Sgt William Haslett, a US soldier.

The attack is a test of newly trained units of the Iraqi army, deploying 11 battalions of soldiers alongside three battalions of paramilitary police. The US has three battalions of troops taking part in the assault.

Saadoun Dulaimi, the Defence Minister, said that his men had killed 141 insurgents and captured 197 in the past two days. Five government soldiers had died and three were wounded. The disproportionate casualty figures suggest that, if true, most of the insurgents were killed by bombs or shells.

Mr Dulaimi implied that his men would soon launch attacks on other cities and towns where the resistance is largely in control. He said: "We say to our people in Qaim, Rawa, Samarra and Ramadi - we are coming and terrorists and criminals will not be able to hide there." He blamed Iraq's neighbours for allowing foreign fighters to enter Iraq.

In the past, the US army has borne the brunt of the fighting and the Iraqi army presence has largely been cosmetic. When Iraqi troops have been engaged, it is usually former Kurdish and Shia militiamen who have been most effective.

Tal Afar is a mainly Turkoman town of 200,000 people, most of whom have fled, west of Mosul.

The US and the Baghdad government have long believed that Tal Afar is a staging post for insurgents entering Iraq from Syria. But Turkomans and Sunni Arabs in the town see themselves as under pressure from the Kurds. The town has been governed by a Shia city council and police force since the fall of Saddam. US troops captured Tal Afar last year but then withdrew, allowing the resistance to re-establish control.

The attack was announced by the Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, whose interim government is widely seen as ineffective. It faces a referendum on the draft constitution on 15 October and an election for the National Assembly in December. Both events are likely to deepen the divide between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds.

Sectarian hostility between Shia and Sunni Arabs is increasing by the day. The bodies of 18 men, all Shia, have been found handcuffed and shot to death after they were picked up by men in police uniforms in a Shia neighbourhood of Iskandariyah, a town 30 miles south of Baghdad.

One of the problems in using the Iraqi army to take and occupy Sunni Arab towns and villages is that the presence of Shia and Kurdish soldiers provokes a backlash and leads to greater support for the insurgents. Tit-for-tat killings have now become common.

Baghdad international airport reopened yesterday after being closed down by the British security company Global Strategies Group because it has not been paid for seven months. On Friday, troops from the Interior Ministry advanced on the airport, but withdrew when faced with US troops. After a furious row, the Transport Ministry agreed to pay Global 50 per cent of the money owed.