ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF TAL AFAR – U.S. troops barred anguished crowds from returning to their homes in the besieged city of Tal Afar (search) on Monday as residents described corpses scattered across orchards and the collapse of essential services such as water and electricity.
American troops and Iraqi forces on Sunday overran Tal Afar, one of several Iraqi cities they say had fallen into the hands of insurgents, after a nearly two-week siege that forced scores of residents to flee and left a trail of devastated buildings and rubble.
Crowds of men desperate to learn the fate of their loved ones and check on their homes pleaded with American troops manning a checkpoint on the city's outskirts to let them through. But soldiers only stepped aside for a few medical relief workers and regional officials.
"It's for their own safety," 1st Lt. Neal Erickson of Task Force Olympia, which controls the area, said at the checkpoint.
Fighting in the city, populated mainly by Iraq's ethnic Turkish minority known as Turkmen (search), drew a warning Monday from U.S. ally Turkey.
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said he told Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) that Ankara would stop cooperating with the United States in Iraq if American forces continued to harm the ethnic Turkish population.
Gul said he told Powell that "what is being done there is harming the civilian population, that it is wrong, and that if it continues, Turkey's cooperation on issues regarding Iraq will come to a total stop."
Hazem Saleh, deputy head of the Kurdish Democratic Party — one of the main U.S. allies in northern Iraq — said there were not enough police and paramilitary forces to secure the city amid concerns of possible looting and chaos as thousands of people stream back to their homes.
Saleh, speaking by telephone from his party's headquarters in Tal Afar, said the city was quiet Monday but that health, water and electricity services had ceased to function.
"There are still bodies lying in the battlefields, orchards" and dry river beds, said Saleh, adding that the dead included militants and civilians.
"Who would take them away?" he added. "There's no hospital or government offices working."
U.S. commanders said they moved in on Tal Afar at the behest of regional officials who lost control of the city. American intelligence believed Tal Afar had become a haven for militants smuggling men and arms from across the Syrian border.
Turkmen officials have said that 58 people were killed during a 12-day assault by U.S. and Iraqi government forces. Turkmen residents who fled the city to nearby Mosul spoke of bodies lying under the hot sun and wrecked buildings.
Saleh said U.S. and Iraqi forces are hunting for remaining militants in the city's orchards, private homes and government offices. But most of the insurgents are believed to have fled with their guns.
The all-male crowd standing across from a checkpoint outside Tal Afar said Monday that they had been coming there every day at dawn for 10 days and staying until sunset in hopes of being allowed through.
"We only want to go and check on our homes. We are afraid of the looters taking everything," said 40-year-old Suleiman Hussein.
The Iraqi Red Crescent has set up three camps in nearby villages to house displaced families. Thousands of others have sought refuge in mosques or moved in with friends or relatives in Mosul and elsewhere.
At the camps, the Turkmen are given rice, bread, vegetables, cookies and water. But there are no toilets or electricity.
Turkiya Afandi, 30, sat cross-legged on the floor of her tent and cooked tiny pieces of eggplant on a small grill she managed to bring with her as she and her husband and four children left Tal Afar in the back of a truck.
"It's hard here, but I am in peace because there are no tanks and planes firing at us," she said.