| A US soldier hugs an Iraqi boy at a refugee camp near Tal Afar. (Reuters)
Tal Afar (Iraq), Sept. 10 (Reuters): Thousands of Iraqi and US troops launched an assault on the northern city of Tal Afar today to rid it of insurgents and Iraq’s government said it planned attacks on rebels in four other towns.
“At 2200 GMT, acting on my orders, Iraqi forces commenced an operation to remove all remaining terrorist elements from the city of Tal Afar,” Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari said in a statement, adding that US forces, which bombed the town from the air overnight, were acting in support.
During the day, however, a dust storm hindered the offensive, officers in Tal Afar said.
Jaafari said the troops were responding to appeals for help from “all the different religious and ethnic elements in Tal Afar.” The town, west of the northern city of Mosul and near the Syrian border, is mostly populated by ethnic Turkmen.
Hospital sources in Tal Afar said the assault started with US air strikes on the centre, adding that there were US tanks surrounding the area and gunfire was heard overnight. Civilians have been taken out of the town in recent days as military operations were stepped up, officials said.
US and Iraqi forces have long said Tal Afar was being used as a conduit for equipment and foreign Sunni Arab fighters smuggled in from Syria to fight the Shia and Kurdish-led Iraqi government and occupying US forces across the country.
Beyond any military value, the political importance of an operation in which Iraqi forces are shown on television taking the lead role is considerable; in power for five months and facing an election in December, Jaafari’s much-criticised government is keen to show it is capable of restoring security.
For Washington, anxious to persuade American voters that it can bring troops home soon as Iraqi forces are trained up, the operation is also a useful showcase for the new Iraqi army.
US forces which have taken the lead in all similar major offensives in the past, such as that on Falluja last November, had previously taken Tal Afar but subsequently pulled out again.
Jaafari stressed the lead role played by Iraqi troops. US military spokesmen declined comment. Iraqi television showed repeated film of Iraqi troops in Tal Afar with no sign of US soldiers.
Defence minister Saadoun Dulaimi said that after the assault, government forces were ready to strike insurgents in four other northwestern towns.