Sunni Arab leaders in Iraq are criticizing the Iraqi government's three day-old military operation against Sunni insurgents and foreign fighters in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar.

Since the military operation in the predominantly Sunni city of Tal Afar began on Saturday, the government has been reassuring the Iraqi public that the offensive, near the Syrian border, was launched only after residents there begged the government to rid Tal Afar of Iraqi Sunni extremists and foreign fighters, who had turned the city into a terrorist haven. 

Still, several prominent Sunni Arab groups and leaders on Tuesday said that they deplored the use of force in Tal Afar. 

Former interim Iraqi Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib criticized what he said was the government's failure to seek a political dialogue with Sunni leaders in Tal Afar before opting for a military solution.

"Definitely, there should have been a better solution than a major military operation,? he said.  ?I don't encourage any military operations against civilians. I've been told that there are quite a number of innocent people being killed during this operation.  I've been told that the humanitarian situation is very bad in Tal Afar."

Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated interim government says those reports are not true.  It insists most residents had already fled Tal Afar before the offensive began and those who remained were evacuated and given tents, food, water and medical care.  Iraqi leaders add that millions of dollars have been put aside to fund the rebuilding of the city.

The government says that all Iraqis should be proud of the Tal Afar operation because it marked the first time that U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces had taken the lead in a major military sweep.  Eleven battalions of the Iraqi army, three battalions of Iraqi police force and one special police commando unit are said to have taken part in the fight in Tal Afar, with a much smaller number of U.S. troops providing back-up support.

But because many Sunni Arabs, who form the core of the insurgency, have boycotted Iraq's political process and rebuilding efforts since the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, the ranks of Iraqi security forces are dominated by the country's majority Shi'ite Muslims, who were brutally oppressed under Saddam.

The Shi'ites' grip on power within the government and security forces has fueled Sunni suspicion that actions taken against Sunni Arabs and their communities, such as in Tal Afar, are largely motivated by sectarian reasons.

Saad Jawad Qindeel is a Shi'ite legislator in the National Assembly and a spokesman for the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the largest Shi'ite political parties in government.

Sunnis have accused the party's military wing, the Badr Brigade, of infiltrating Iraq's police force in large numbers and carrying out numerous killings of Sunni Arabs in recent months.

Mr. Qindeel vehemently denies some Sunni allegations that the three battalions of Iraqi police and special commandos have been dispatched to Tal Afar to carry out more killings of Sunnis, not to provide security for the townspeople.       

"The operation is against the terrorists, not against the Sunnis, not against the people, and the fact of the matter is they are there to protect the people against terrorists," he said.

Many Sunnis remain unconvinced and say the Tal Afar offensive risks further division in Iraqi society, nearly a month ahead of a referendum on a draft constitution opposed by Sunni Arabs.