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Iraq, US hit a purported rebel area

Insurgents had quit Tal Afar before assault

TAL AFAR, Iraq -- Thousands of Iraqi Army troops, backed by US forces, launched a major assault yesterday in this northern insurgent stronghold, with Iraqi government officials stressing that the offensive is part of a long-range strategy to halt the influx of foreign fighters across the Syrian border.

The moment the Iraqi troops launched their attack just after 7 a.m., the bullets began to fly. Gunfire echoed off centuries-old stone buildings in the insurgent-controlled neighborhood of Sarai: machine-gun bursts, booming tank rounds; and an incessant crackle of AK-47s that lasted for most of an hour.

But the shooting was going in only one direction.

''So far, Iraqi Army reporting no enemy contact," came the word over the radio, 45 minutes after the first shots were fired, to US troops waiting to join the assault.

By the time the Americans entered Sarai -- in a rare supporting role to an Iraqi battalion composed mostly of the Kurdish peshmerga militiamen, who led the charge -- the labyrinthine warren of close-packed structures and streets too narrow for armored vehicles was eerily deserted.

Insurgents had fled, along with almost every resident, amid widespread word of an imminent offensive and heavy aerial bombardment that had lasted for days. Virtually every building in a 20-block radius was pockmarked with bullet holes, and many bore the trademark gaping holes blown by heavy explosives dropped nightly from the sky. Only a handful of bodies were found.

For many of the more than 5,000 US and Iraqi soldiers, yesterday brought only an anticlimax. Their eight-day-old counterinsurgency operation in this northwestern city, 40 miles from the Syrian border, had built toward an expected showdown with insurgents in Sarai.

''I was very unhappy. I came to capture bad guys and kill them, but we hardly saw any," said Iraqi Army Corporal Salar Omar of Irbil. ''One of the men we captured said that many ran to other cities."

Commanders proclaimed the relative lack of resistance a sign of the success of the operation, in which at least 550 suspected insurgents have been killed or captured, the vast majority of them Iraqi, including six of the 10 top targets the US military had identified here. One US soldier and five Iraqi troops also have been killed.

''I think what we saw today was the effect of our counterinsurgency and security operations in Tal Afar in the previous weeks," said Colonel H.R. McMaster, commander of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment. ''The enemy then decided to bail out. They knew they were being destroyed."

The operation in Tal Afar, which US and Iraqi officials have long considered a strategic hub for insurgents carrying out attacks across northern Iraq, will continue into the coming days, commanders in the city said. The city of more than 200,000 has been plagued by insurgent violence and clashes between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim tribes. A year ago this month, American forces drove insurgents from the city -- only to see them return when US troop strength in the region was reduced to about 500 soldiers.

In forgoing a fight, insurgents repeated a tactic they have employed in the face of counterinsurgency offensives in the neighboring province of Anbar, where Marines invading a string of insurgent strongholds met little resistance from fighters who moved elsewhere or hid among the civilian population.

In Baghdad yesterday, three Iraqi Cabinet officials held a news conference to discuss the unfolding events. Defense Minister Sadoun Dulaimi told reporters that other cities could soon see offensives like the one in Tal Afar.

''We tell our people everywhere -- in Qaim, Rawah, Samarra, and Ramadi -- that we are coming and there will be no hideout or place for the terrorists," he said.

In recent days, US and Iraqi soldiers operating throughout the city had converged on Sarai, where fighting was expected to be fiercest. One US squadron of just over 1,000 soldiers had planned for roughly 10 casualties per day during the assault. The night before the attack, commanders pored over aerial photographs of the neighborhood, which is so densely constructed that buildings were all but indistinguishable, making it difficult to plot a route for the attack.

''It's pretty much the worst urban terrain for fighting imaginable," said Captain Alan Blackburn, commander of the Eagle Troop of the Third Armored Cavalry's Second Squadron, as he peppered his platoon commanders with questions about how to deal with wounded soldiers or large numbers of dead civilians.

Blackburn's intelligence showed that from 75 to 100 insurgents remained in Sarai, along with as many as 500 civilians, despite US warnings to evacuate.

In another development yesterday, the bodies of 17 Shi'ite men were discovered near Latifiyah, another insurgent hotspot south of Baghdad. The men were said to have been among a group who had been detained by men reportedly wearing Iraqi Army uniforms.

Material from the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press was included in this report.

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