- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 11, 2005

TAL AFAR, Iraq — More than 5,000 Iraqi army and paramilitary troops backed by U.S. soldiers swept into this insurgent stronghold near the Syrian border yesterday, conducting house-to-house searches and battering down stone walls in the narrow, winding streets of the old city.

Late yesterday, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari ordered the Rabiyah border crossing closed in an attempt to stanch the flow of insurgents from Syria, which is about 60 miles from Tal Afar.

Though several hundred insurgents using small arms initially put up stiff resistance in the city’s ancient Sarai district, Iraqi forces reported only two men wounded in the fighting yesterday. The U.S. military issued no casualty report for the 3,500 Americans in the operation.

Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said 48 insurgents had been captured.

As the day wore on, fighting quickly died down, said Col. H.R. McMasters, commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He said the joint force found the Sarai neighborhood nearly deserted after the shooting ended.

“The enemy decided to bail out,” he said, but 150 insurgents had been killed the past two days. Mr. Jabr put the number of insurgent deaths at 141 and said five government soldiers died and three were wounded in the same period.

Col. McMasters said the vast majority of insurgents captured in that period were “Iraqis and not foreigners.” Iraqi officials said Thursday that they had captured 150 foreign fighters.

South of Baghdad, police made the gruesome discovery of 18 men who had been handcuffed and fatally shot after they were abducted two days ago from their Shi’ite Muslim neighborhood in Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of the capital.

In recent weeks, dozens of bodies have been recovered, the apparent victims of tit-for-tat vengeance killings by Shi’ite and Sunni Arab death squads.

Baghdad International Airport reopened yesterday after a 24-hour closure, begun when a British security firm stopped work because it had not been paid for seven months. After overnight negotiations, the government agreed to pay half of what it owed, and employees of the London-based Global Strategies Group were ordered back to work.

Defense Minister Sadoun al-Dulaimi said he expected the offensive in Tal Afar to last three days, but he complained Iraq’s neighbors had not done enough to stop the flow of foreign fighters.

“I regret to say that instead of sending medicines to us, our Arab brothers are sending terrorists,” he said.

Mr. Jabr read Mr. al-Jaafari’s order closing the border on Iraqi television late yesterday. The decree indefinitely shut the Rabiyah crossing to all transportation, including the railroad, except for vehicles with special permission from the Interior Ministry.

The order did not affect the frontier crossing near the insurgent stronghold of Qaim or the major highway into Syria.

The offensive in Tal Afar, 260 miles northwest of Baghdad, is especially delicate because of the tangle of ethnic sensitivities.

About 90 percent of the city’s 200,000 residents — most fled to the countryside before the fighting — are Sunni Turkmen who have complained about their treatment from the Shi’ite-dominated government and police force put in place after the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Addressing that complaint, Mr. Jabr announced yesterday that 1,000 additional police officers would be hired in Tal Afar after the offensive and that they would be chosen from the Turkmen population.

The Turkmen have a vocal ally in their Turkish brethren to the north, where Turkey’s government, a vital U.S. ally, has fought against its own Kurdish insurgency for decades. Tal Afar is next to land controlled by Iraqi Kurds.

Turkey voiced disapproval of U.S. tactics when American forces ran insurgents out of Tal Afar a year ago and threatened to stop cooperating with the Americans. The siege was lifted the next day, and insurgents began returning when the Americans quickly pulled out, leaving behind only a skeleton force of 500 soldiers.

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