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Iraq: Operation In Tal Afar A Success, But For How Long?

U.S. soldier in Tal Afar After months of preparation, some 5,000 Iraqi security forces backed by 3,500 U.S. troops launched a major push into the northwestern Iraqi town of Tal Afar on 10 September in an effort to drive out terrorists based there once and for all.

Defense Minister Sa'dun al-Dulaymi said the operation is the first to be led by Iraqis, and told reporters on 10 September that other cities have requested help from the government. Addressing the citizens of Al-Ramadi, Al-Rawah, Al-Qa'im, and Samarra during a Baghdad press briefing, he said, "We are coming," RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported.

Al-Dulaymi told reporters that the offensive was planned some three months ago, but not carried out until now because Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari had requested that the government first attempt to find a "peaceful solution" to the situation in Tal Afar.

In preparation for the operation, the U.S. military began construction of a wall around Tal Afar in July in an effort to keep insurgents and weapons from streaming into the town, similar to the 64-kilometer dirt berm earlier constructed around Mosul by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the same purpose (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 July 2005). It is unclear whether or not the wall aided this week's operation -- and now that insurgents are gone, whether it will be able to keep them out in the future.

Temporary Success

While both the Iraqi and U.S. military are calling the operation a success, the dust will have to settle before a final verdict is issued on Tal Afar. Much of the insurgency's strength remains its ability to travel relatively unobstructed and undetected -- when multinational forces converge on one city, the insurgents pick up and relocate to another one.

Defense Minister Al-Dulaymi said that Iraqi and U.S. forces had killed 141 insurgents and arrested some 200 more between 9 and 10 September. But media reports from embedded journalists indicated that the streets of Tal Afar were more or less empty when troops entered the town on 10 September, suggesting, as in earlier operations such as the major offensive into Al-Fallujah in November 2004, that the insurgents had fled the city in previous days along with local residents (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 15 November 2004). There, insurgents left ahead of the major offensive, and established new bases in areas south and north of Baghdad.

Moreover, the number of insurgents in the town was unknown. Major General Rick Lynch, deputy chief of staff for Multinational Force Iraq, was asked by reporters at an 8 September Baghdad press briefing about the estimated number of insurgents in the city. "We believe that the insurgency inside of Tal Afar is comprised of terrorists and foreign fighters and local insurgents. And the magnitude of the insurgency is something that we are working through now, and I'm not at liberty to discuss [it]," Lynch said. He later estimated that about 20 percent of the insurgents were foreign fighters. Meanwhile, the Iraqi Army announced that 75 percent of the 200 insurgents arrested were foreign fighters, RFI reported on 8 September.

Glimpses of what the insurgents left behind are just beginning to come to light. State-owned Al-Iraqiyah television broadcast grim footage on 9 September of residents slaughtered by terrorists in Tal Afar -- mutilated bodies, eyes gauged out, limbs missing. Also left behind were military handbooks with diagrams on how to conduct ambushes and guides on making explosives, reported on 11 September.

So, will this operation produce a better outcome? If media reports are correct and insurgents have already fled the city, then the success will be relative. However, in an effort to stave off an insurgent reentry into Tal Afar, Iraqi forces from the 3rd Iraqi Army Division will remain there after the majority of troops pull out. Iraqi security forces have also closed down the border crossing with Syria indefinitely, allowing only vehicles authorized by the Interior Ministry to enter and leave Iraq. That decision appears to be an indefinite one at best, however.

Sunnis Criticize Operation

The Muslim Scholars Association criticized the operation in a 10 September statement posted to their website ( The group accused the al-Ja'fari government of accepting the shedding of Iraqi blood and of asking "the occupiers and invaders to shed it." The association claimed that al-Ja'fari is doing what former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi did in Al-Fallujah, "slaughtering and destroying" the town. "What is happening in Tal Afar is an attempt to give vent to a deep-seated sectarian grudge, from which a ruler should disassociate himself," the association claimed, referring to the Shi'ite prime minister. In an attempt to incite violence, the association called on "anyone who can [to] stop" the operation.

Muhammad Rashid, the Sunni mayor of Tal Afar, reportedly resigned on 10 September in protest of the operation's targeting of Sunni neighborhoods, AP reported. Meanwhile, U.S. and Iraqi forces have said Sunni and Turkoman tribal leaders worked with the Iraqi and U.S. forces to evacuate residents from the city in the days leading up to the operation.

Haydar al-Abadi, the prime minister's special coordinator for Tal Afar, responded to the Muslim Scholars Association's allegations, telling Al-Arabiyah television on 10 September: "The talk about a massacre in Tal Afar is far from true and accurate.... It unfortunately aims again and again to fan the flames of a fire that do not exist in Iraq. There are terrorist criminals who try to sow sedition among the sons of the one country, the one homeland, and the one city."

For the latest news and analysis on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".