A senior U.S. military commander in Iraq says coalition and Iraqi forces have driven insurgents from the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar, and that reconstruction of the area is well under way.  Army Colonel H.R. McMaster made the remarks during a teleconference from Iraq.

Colonel McMaster says when his forces first arrived in northern Iraq last May, insurgents, including foreign fighters and Saddam loyalists, had choked the life out of the region by conducting systematic attacks throughout the area.

McMaster says many of the insurgents infiltrated the city of Tal Afar, which lies about 60 kilometers from porous Syrian border.

"What the enemy really needed to do is intimidate the population in the area, to give them safe-haven so people would be afraid to cooperate with our forces or Iraqi security forces trying to bring security to the area," he said.  "They also hoped to incite sectarian violence, which they did by collapsing the police force, turning the police force, in effect, into a sectarian militia that further fed the cycle of sectarian violence."

A turning point came last September when, for the first time, U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces took the lead in a major military operation against insurgents in Tal Afar.

Colonel McMaster says the Iraqi army and police forces backed by U.S. troops successfully drove most of the foreign fighters out of the area.

"As a result of our combined efforts with Iraqi security forces, some brave Iraqi leaders, soldiers and police I am happy to report to you that the situation in Tal Afar, and in western Niniweh, has fundamentally changed," he added.  "What we have been able to achieve there together alongside our Iraqi brothers is to bring life back to this area, to rekindle hope."

Colonel McMaster says the success at Tal Afar means that a major staging area has now been taken from those dedicated to the defeat of coalition forces and the new Iraqi government.

"This was an important physical defeat for the enemy because they lost this safe haven and support base in an area they hoped to use to destabilize the northern region of Iraq," he explained.  "It was also a very important psychological defeat to the enemy, because people now understand that these anti-Iraqi forces want Iraq to fail."

Colonel McMaster says basic services, such as water and electricity, have now been restored in Tal Afar, and people in the city feel safe to move around the region.

He says in the recent Iraqi elections some 90 percent of eligible voters went to the polls.