The top spokesman for multinational forces in Iraq says civilians in the northern insurgent stronghold of Tal Afar are being evacuated in preparation for a possible major military sweep through militant-held areas of the city.
U.S. Army Major General Rick Lynch says if and when the operation takes place, it will involve American and Iraqi troops targeting insurgents and foreign fighters, who are trying to turn Tal Afar into a terrorist haven.
"We're not specifying any timeline for the Tal Afar operations," said General Lynch. "In terms of the number of troops that are involved and specific sequence of events that are involved, clearly that would not be prudent for me to talk about it at this point. If indeed decisive military operations are required, we want to ensure that the attacks take place without collateral damage and the killing of innocent civilians. So, in preparations for potential operations, we are working with local leaders -- the tribal leaders, local government -- to evacuate civilians from the town of Tal Afar."
General Lynch's announcement follows reports from the Iraqi military in Tal Afar that Iraqi forces there had arrested about 200 suspected insurgents in the city on Wednesday. Iraqi army officials say about 150 of those arrested were Arabs from Syria, Sudan, Yemen and Jordan. The other 50 were Iraqis carrying fake documents.
Tal Afar lies about 420 kilometers north of Baghdad and about 60 kilometers from the Syrian border.
Syria's porous border has long been a favorite entry point into Iraq for foreign fighters, who often find sympathy and refuge in Sunni-dominated insurgent towns like Tal Afar.
Since May, U.S. and Iraqi forces there have fought fierce street battles with local insurgents and foreign fighters, but have not been able to defeat them.
General Lynch says the military sweep being planned is intended to wipe out the insurgency in Tal Afar once and for all.
"Right now, actively involved in operations in Tal Afar is the Third Iraqi Army Division," added General Lynch. "We now have sufficient assets available, between the coalition forces and Iraqi security forces, to leave behind a robust security presence so that the insurgents cannot return and that is indeed part of the plan."
Preparing for a military showdown, the U.S. military in Tal Afar has erected a berm around the city to cut off escape routes. For residents who have no other place to go, tents have been set up for them to live in while the operation is carried out.
A similar military operation last November in the Sunni city of Fallujah in western Anbar province killed more than a thousand insurgents and foreign fighters. But many others escaped and fled to other parts of Iraq.