A day after launching an all-out assault, Iraqi and U.S. military officials say their troops are making significant progress in their efforts to rid the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar of insurgents and foreign fighters. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from Baghdad.
Giving reporters a detailed update of the day-old joint U.S.-Iraqi military operation in Tal Afar, the top spokesman for the multinational forces in Iraq, Major General Rick Lynch, says the troops there expect to have the town secured within the next few days.
"We have indeed been able to isolate the insurgents in specific areas of Tal Afar. The thing that we are focused on right now is the district called Sarai. It's about 600 meters by 800 meters in size. We have been able to, in the last four months, to essentially corner the insurgents, force them into this area, so that we can conduct decisive operations against them at the time and place of our choosing, and those operations are indeed underway as we speak," he said.
Several thousand Iraqi and U.S. troops are said to be involved in the operation, which began Saturday on the orders of Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
Tal Afar lies about 60 kilometers from the Syrian border, and has become one of several major staging areas for foreign fighters and Iraqi Sunni Arab insurgents opposed to the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated interim government. The prime minister's office says the all-out assault was approved after four months of fighting in Tal Afar failed to disrupt the insurgency there.
At a news conference Sunday, Iraqi Defense Minister Sadoun al-Dulaimi accused neighboring Syria of trying to destroy Iraq by allowing foreign fighters to sneak into the country.
Through an interpreter, the defense minister warned foreign fighters and Iraqi insurgents that they would no longer find sanctuary anywhere in Iraq.
"I would like to confirm that, after the military operations in Tal Afar, we have other military operations stemming from Tal Afar, until we reach the Euphrates [River], and we will never let the terrorists take control of these areas,” he said. “What happened in Fallujah will not be repeated in this area, because we will kill any terrorists who flee from these cities."
General Lynch says about 300-to-500 insurgents and foreign fighters are still in Tal Afar. But he says they no longer control any part of the town.
During street-to-street, house-to-house searches in the Sarai district, Iraqi and U.S. forces say they discovered a large factory for making car bombs and improvised explosive devices (IUDs), 18 weapons caches, and two tunnels under construction, apparently to be used as escape routes.
Tal Afar's population, most of whom have either fled in recent months or have been evacuated from the city, is predominantly Sunni Arab and Turkmen. Iraqi officials have insisted that the military offensive in Tal Afar is not aimed at any particular ethnic group, but the town's Sunni mayor has resigned in protest of what he says are military sweeps targeting Sunni Arab neighborhoods.
On Sunday, a posting on an Internet Web site, claiming to be from an Iraqi Sunni extremist group with links to al-Qaida, threatened the use of non-conventional and chemical weapons against Iraqi and U.S. forces in Iraq unless the Tal Afar offensive was called off within 24 hours. The threat, posted in the name of Jaish al-Taefa al-Mansura, or Army of the Victorious Community, could not be independently confirmed.