TAL AFAR, Iraq – More than 5,000 Iraqi army and paramilitary troops backed by U.S. soldiers swept into this insurgent stronghold near the Syrian border, conducting house-to-house searches and battering down stone walls in the narrow, winding streets of the old city.
"Operation Restoring Rights is being conducted to remove terrorists and foreign fighters operating in Tal Afar," Col. Billy J. Buckner (search), a military spokesman, said Sunday. "This operation is in support of the Iraqi government's efforts to bring safety and security to the citizens of the city."
Buckner said that Iraqi and U.S. troops had captured 211 terror suspects, killed 141 terrorists and confiscated nine weapons caches since Aug. 26.
Late Saturday, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari (search) ordered the Rabiyah border crossing closed in an attempt to stanch the flow of insurgents from Syria, which is about 60 miles from Tal Afar.
While several hundred insurgents using small arms initially put up stiff resistance in the city's ancient Sarai district, Iraqi forces reported only two men wounded in the day's fighting. The U.S. military issued no casualty report for the 3,500 Americans in the operation.
As the day wore on, fighting quickly died down, said Col. H.R. McMasters, commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He said the joint force found the Sarai neighborhood nearly deserted once the shooting ended.
"The enemy decided to bail out," he said.
McMasters said the vast majority of insurgents captured in that period were "Iraqis and not foreigners."
With the Tal Afar offensive under way, Iraqi Defense Minister Sadoun al-Du (search)laimi signaled his U.S.-trained forces would not stop after this operation and vowed to move against insurgent bastions throughout the country.
"We say to our people ... we are coming," he said.
The offensive in Tal Afar, 260 miles northwest of Baghdad, is especially delicate because of the tangle of ethnic sensitivities.
About 90 percent of the city's 200,000 people — most fled to the countryside before the fighting — are Sunni Turkmen who have complained about their treatment from the Shiite-dominated government and police force put in place after the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Addressing that complaint, Jabr announced Saturday that 1,000 additional police officers would be hired in Tal Afar after the offensive and that they would be chosen from the Turkmen population.
The Turkmen have a vocal ally in their Turkish brethren to the north, where Turkey's government is a vital U.S. ally and has fought against its own Kurdish insurgency for decades. Tal Afar is next to land controlled by Iraqi Kurds.
Turkey voiced disapproval of U.S. tactics when American forces ran insurgents out of Tal Afar a year ago. The Turkmen residents complained that Iraqi Kurds were fighting alongside the Americans.
U.S. and Kurdish officials denied the allegation, but the Turkish government threatened to stop cooperating with the Americans. The siege was lifted the next day and insurgents began returning when the Americans quickly pulled out, leaving behind only a skeleton force of 500 soldiers.
For those reasons, U.S. forces stood back during the new sweep through Tal Afar, allowing Iraqi forces to break down doors in the search for insurgents. The Americans followed behind, securing positions while the Iraqis advanced.
Twelve hours after the offensive began, al-Jaafari said insurgents had been trying to "to isolate Tal Afar from the political process as we are preparing for the referendum on the draft constitution."
Al-Dulaimi, who joined al-Jaafari at a news conference, said he expected the offensive to last three days and complained Iraq's neighbors had not done enough to stop the flow of foreign fighters.
"I regret to say that instead of sending medicines to us, our Arab brothers are sending terrorists," al-Dulaimi said.
The interior minister read al-Jaafari's order closing the border on Iraqi television late Saturday. The decree indefinitely shut the Rabiyah crossing to all transportation, including the railroad, except for vehicles with special permission from the Interior Ministry.
The order did not affect the frontier crossing near the insurgent stronghold of Qaim or the major highway into Syria.