- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

A U.S. commander yesterday declared that the Iraqi city of Tal Afar is now under coalition control after weeks of street-to-street fighting that disrupted an entrenched alliance of Abu Musab Zarqawi terrorists and Saddam Hussein loyalists.

“It is very clear that control of Tal Afar has been restored and they are now working very closely with both the Iraqi army, the police and our forces,” said Army Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, deputy commander of multinational forces in northwest Iraq.

Insurgents took over the city of 150,000 last spring, turning it into a command center and training ground for foreign fighters moving from the Syrian border, through Tal Afar, to Mosul and then points south.

A regiment led by Army Col. H.R. McMaster, and augmented by an Iraqi army division, began assaulting the town this past summer. Soldiers found a well-structured network of terror cells. Some enforced order via killings and kidnappings. Others indoctrinated youths in radical Islam. One cell taught the techniques of building deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

“What the enemy did is they waged the most brutal and murderous campaign against the people of Tal Afar,” Col. McMaster said at a press conference last week.

Gen. Bergner said the fighting in Tal Afar, and other parts of northwest Iraq, has resulted in severe damage to al Qaeda in Iraq, which is headed by Zarqawi, who has pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden.

Al Qaeda’s murderous ways have also prompted more Iraqis to join the democracy movement and provide tips on the location of the enemy and of hidden IEDs, according to the general.

“The population here is no longer on the fence,” Gen. Bergner said. “They want freedom.”

The general said weekly attacks have dropped from about 110 last winter to 60 to 70 today.

“That’s largely enabled by the Iraqi people coming forward and reporting things that they didn’t have the confidence to do before,” he said.

Northwest Iraq, like the rest of the country, is preparing for an Oct. 15 referendum on a new constitution that will pave the way for elections in December of a permanent parliament. More than 100,000 new voters have registered in the north.

In Tal Afar, the coalition is working to create a police force that will keep the city in coalition hands once the Iraqi army withdraws.

The United States has trained an Iraq security force of more than 180,000, but few units can operate totally on their own without American assistance.

“Many are capable of limited independent operations at the small unit level right now,” Gen. Bergner said. “Police are shooting back when they get shot at.”

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