- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 11, 2005

TAL AFAR, Iraq — Fighting eased yesterday, the second day of a sweep through this militant stronghold near the Syrian border, as insurgents melted into the countryside, many escaping through a tunnel network dug under an ancient northern city.

An 8,500-strong Iraqi-U.S. force continued house-to-house searches, and military leaders said the assault would push all along the Syrian frontier and in the Euphrates River valley.

About 5,000 Iraqi soldiers, backed by a 3,500-member American armored force, reported 156 insurgents killed and 246 captured. The force discovered a bomb factory, 18 weapons caches and the tunnel network in the ancient Sarai neighborhood of Tal Afar, 60 miles east of the Syrian border.

“The terrorists had seen it coming [and prepared] tunnel complexes to be used as escape routes,” Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said in Baghdad.

Gen. Lynch said operations in Tal Afar were part of a nationwide plan to destroy insurgent and al Qaeda bases, which included ongoing operations in Mosul, Qaim and the western town of Rutba.

A group claiming to be an offshoot of al Qaeda said it would retaliate against the government and security forces in the capital.

“The Taifa al-Mansoura Army has decided to … strike at strategic and other targets of importance for the occupation and the infidels in Baghdad by using chemical and unconventional weapons developed by the mujahedeen, unless the military operations in Tal Afar stop within 24 hours,” the statement said.

The authenticity of the statement, which was posted on a Web site known for militant contents, could not be determined.

Iraqi Defense Minister Sadoun al-Dulaimi said the sweep of Tal Afar was carried out at the request of city residents and would be a model as his forces attacked other insurgent-held cities in quick succession.

“After the Tal Afar operation ends, we will move on Rabiyah [on the Syrian border] and Sinjar [a region north of nearby Mosul] and then go down to the Euphrates valley,” Mr. al-Dulaimi said.

“We are warning those who have given shelter to terrorists that they must stop, kick them out or else we will cut off their hands, heads and tongues as we did in Tal Afar,” he said.

In Baghdad, the Interior Ministry director of police training was fatally shot in front of his home in a western neighborhood as he waited for a ride to work. Maj. Gen. Adnan Abdul Rihman died on the spot, said local police commander Maj. Musa Abdul Karim.

The U.S. military said a Task Force Liberty soldier was killed in a roadside bombing before dawn while on patrol near Samarra, 60 miles north of the capital. Two soldiers were wounded. At least 1,897 members of the U.S. military have died since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

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