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Washington's latest offensive in Iraq
Iron fist in Tal Afar

September 16, 2005 | Page 5

LEE SUSTAR reports on the U.S. assault on the Iraqi city of Tal Afar.

VIRTUALLY AN entire city with a population of more than 200,000 was forced to flee as an attack by U.S. forces and Iraqi government troops began in early September.

The ongoing assault on Tal Afar--the biggest since the leveling of Falluja last year--was justified by U.S. military brass as necessary to cut off "foreign fighters" from joining the Iraqi insurgency. Yet according to media repor ts, most of the resistance--along with 90 percent of the population--had already left Tal Afar, located near the Syrian and Turkish borders, before U.S. troops used air strikes and artillery to level the city.

Moreover, fighters aligned with the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi reportedly moved into the town of al-Qaim in central Iraq, taking advantage of the shift in U.S. forces towards Tal Afar. The U.S. military nevertheless claimed that 200 resistance fighters had been killed in a week of fighting in what was their second attack on Tal Afar.

U.S. forces first attacked the city--which has a population that is 90 percent Sunni Turkmen--last September, before withdrawing. In recent months, the growth in strength of the insurgency across Iraq and the long political deadlock over the Iraqi constitution put new pressure on the Pentagon to show results.

The U.S. therefore began preparing for a new onslaught on Tal Afar in July, building 80 miles of berms, or blockades, to restrict movement into and out of the city. According to CNN, the operation, known as "Operation Restoring Rights," involved 4,000 U.S. and coalition forces and roughly 8,000 Iraqi soldiers and police in the Nineveh province, where Tal Afar is located. Preparations continued as negotiations for the new Iraqi constitution reached a fever pitch last month. The U.S. waited for a deal to be patched up before launching the assault.

After moving into the city in early September, U.S. forces then encircled the entire neighborhood of Sarai with razor wire as a prelude to a Falluja-style assault. "The idea is to trap [the resistance] in Sarai or force them toward our checkpoints to the south," Col. H.R. McMaster told the Washington Post. "We don't want them to slip out."

Those who were allowed to leave were "screened" as possible insurgents in U.S.-run camps before receiving food and water. According to press accounts, there at least 100,000 refugees--a crisis that led the Turkish Red Crescent, the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross, to dispatch emergency aid across the borders.

Those who remained are being forced to endure house-to-house searches by U.S. troops from the 3rd Armored Cavalry, as huge M-1 Abrams tanks crash through the narrow streets of the ancient city.

A Washington Post reporter embedded with the troops--one of the only U.S. reporters in Tal Afar--described the horror of the U.S. assault. As soldiers used a sledgehammer to knock down the door of a house, the reporter wrote, "A woman wearing a purple abaya, or full-length cloak, and holding a baby ran toward them. 'Already, my husband is dead, and you are breaking my house!' she shouted. "When shots rang out in the streets, she clutched her baby close to her chest. As a series of explosions grew closer, she sat down, rocked her baby and began to cry."

While the U.S. military aims in Tal Afar are unlikely to be met, Washington at least hopes for some near-term political gains by pushing Iraqi troops to the fore and giving its puppet government the illusion of power.

The attack on Tal Afar, according to Iraq expert Juan Cole, is "an attempt by the U.S. to showcase newly trained Iraqi army units. The problem is that they are perceived as mostly Shiite, and the Tal Afar campaign is targeting Sunni Turkmen neighborhoods. So the mayor has resigned in protest of a 'sectarian operation.'"

The U.S. blitz on Tal Afar will also disrupt efforts by the Sunni population in Nineveh province from mobilizing for a "no" vote in the October 15 referendum on the new constitution. But the constitution--approved over the heads of Iraq's Sunni Islam leaders in August--hadn't even been printed as of September 11 because of last-minute haggling over details of its federal structure.

Whatever the outcome of the vote, the savagery of the U.S. attack is aimed at sending a message to Iraq that Washington isn't going to loosen its grip on the country until it is forced to do so. The assault on Tal Afar gives new urgency to the antiwar protests in Washington and San Francisco on September 24--and the need to step up the demand to bring the troops home now.

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