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Troops tighten grip on Iraq rebel town

Iraqi and United States troops tightened their grip on the northern rebel stronghold of Tal Afar on Monday as insurgents wilted in the face of overwhelming firepower deployed by the 10 000-strong assault force, US commanders said.

The 6 000 Iraqi and 4 000 US troops began an all-out offensive late last week after days of deadly clashes failed to dislodge rebels from Sunni Arab neighbourhoods of the ethnically divided town.

US Major Derrick Baxter reported just four attacks overnight, two with small arms and two makeshift bombs.

On the ground, the situation remained relatively calm on Monday, except for one home-made bomb that blew up in the centre of Tal Afar, killing one Iraqi soldier and wounding two others after it targeted a joint patrol, Baxter said.

Colonel Greg Reilly said insurgents are using classic guerrilla tactics, melting away whenever confronted with superior numbers.

”They went into hiding, avoiding us. That’s why there is no fighting … They are not putting up a fight,” he said.

US troops continued to round up all men of fighting age in Sunni neighbourhoods where the rebels had held sway, after issuing an ultimatum for male residents to leave last Tuesday.

Masked Iraqi informers advised commanders which detainees to retain in custody and which to release.

Near the grain silos on the edge of town, US troops brought in dozens of men in traditional robes one by one for vetting by the informers. All were handcuffed, and some were also blindfolded.

Reilly said about half of the suspects picked up by his unit were freed after informers cleared them, while about 150 were arrested and remain in detention.

Other informers poured through files prepared by US troops on each detainee, but many had difficulty reading the names scribbled down in English.

US commanders have charged that many of the insurgents in Tal Afar are foreign fighters who had turned the town into a staging post for volunteers infiltrating Iraq across the porous border with Syria further west.

Fear subsides

Tal Afar’s Sunni areas resembled a ghost town on Monday. In the south-eastern Saray district, which had been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting, a US Abrams tank manoeuvred through deserted streets.

The fear that had stalked the town’s large Shi’ite Turkmen community for months began to ease and officers of the Shi’ite-dominated police force returned to their posts.

Shi’ites poured out of their houses welcoming US troops and Iraqi police commandos who were brought in from Baghdad to purge the town of insurgents, as children ran after US armoured personnel carriers on dirt roads asking for freebies.

”We want police to be strengthened, but we also want US troops to stay. We feel safe when they are around,” said the leader of the Turkmen Shi’ite tribe of Choular, Sheikh Wali Ali.

He was in a gathering of community leaders in the Shi’ite neighbourhood of al-Moalimeen, where a patrol of Iraqi police commandos had been deployed.

One commando officer said they arrested 13 ”terrorists” on Monday morning in the same neighbourhood.

But Shi’ites feared that rebels have fled Tal Afar to neighbouring villages, making travelling outside the town too dangerous.

”Terrorists have fled to the surrounding villages. Only yesterday [Sunday], a family of five were shot dead near the village of Eiret Hanash, just outside Tal Afar,” one resident, Bahjat Ali, said.

With the removal of the insurgent threat that had prompted scores of Turkmen families to flee for the safety of Shi’ite areas of central and southern Iraq, it was the Sunnis’ turn to worry about sectarian retribution. They also now want the US troops to stay to provide protection.

”We don’t fear you. We fear the [Iraqi] police,” Hazem Saeed (50), told a US patrol in the Sunni neighbourhood of Qadisiyah.

”We don’t want them [the police] here,” echoed fellow resident Mohammed Yunis.

But Tal Afar police officers rejected suggestions that Sunni detainees risked being tortured in retaliation for the intimidation that had kept the police force off the streets for weeks.

”We hand detainees directly to the Americans,” officer Hussein Ali said.

Dozens of inhabitants of the Shi’ite southern neighbourhood of al-Wihda protested outside a nearby US army compound, demanding water and food.

Two men who approached the gates protested that their families were running short of supplies due to restrictions on movement. — Sapa-AFP

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