TAL AFAR (AP) â€” Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari toured the northern city of Tal Afar on Monday â€” ignoring an alleged Al Qaeda threat to strike with chemical weapons â€” to congratulate Iraqi soldiers and commandos for successfully rousting militants from the insurgent stronghold near the Syrian border, Iraqi television reported.
The broadcast said he was in the region despite a previously unreported insurgent threat to unleash chemical weapons against the force of 5,000 Iraqi soldiers and commandos, backed by 3,500 troops from the US 3rd Armoured Cavalry regiment, who stormed into the city Saturday.
“It [the offensive] was a great shock to Al Qaeda. They were thrown off balance and issued this threat. We will be on the lookout,” Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said at a news conference Monday.
Militant positions were found mainly deserted Sunday and the invading force found a network of tunnels below the city through which the insurgents were believed to have fled to the surrounding countryside.
The offensive, however, exacted a heavy toll on the insurgents, leaving almost 200 suspected militants dead and more than 315 captured, Iraqi military officials said.
Forty insurgents were killed in fierce clashes between militants and Iraqi troops who raided suspected hideouts late Monday afternoon. The raids were launched in response to a roadside bombing that targeted an Iraqi patrol earlier in the day, killing one soldier and wounding three, said Capt. Mohammed Ahmed, an Iraqi army spokesman in Tal Afar.
Ahmed said 27 militants were arrested.
Before the afternoon clash, Brig. Gen. Abdul Aziz Mohammed-Jassim said 157 suspected insurgents were killed in clashes with Iraqi forces over the course of the operation. He said 292 militants were arrested. In all, at least six Iraqi soldiers and six civilians died in the fighting, he said.
No American soldiers were reported killed in the fighting.
State-run Iraqiya television reported that Jaafari was in Tal Afar in defiance of “a terrorist threat to attack the city with chemical and biological weapons.” There was no known public threat from the insurgents to use unconventional weapons in the area, but they have issued two web postings since Friday, vowing to use chemical weapons against US and Iraqi government interests in Baghdad. The threats mentioned the Green Zone that houses the US embassy, Iraq’s parliament and government offices.
Also, Abu Mussab Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq posted an audiotape on the Internet on Sunday accusing US and Iraqi forces of using poison gas in the Tal Afar offensive. The authenticity of the tape could not be independently verified, but the voice was similar to other postings attributed to the militant.
“The Crusaders mobilised their big armies and used the most destructive and lethal weapons and the most deadly and hurtful poison gas together with their stooges,” he said.
“But God made them drink at the hands of the mujahedeen the different kinds of death and made them face horrible things that they will never forget.” US officials have consistently denied using poison gas in warfare.
In a new web posting Monday, an insurgent group offered a bounty of nearly $200,000 for the deaths of Jaafari, Jabr and Defence Minister Sadoun Dulaimi in retaliation for the Tal Afar offensive.
The Islamic Army in Iraq, which has previously claimed responsibility for kidnappings and killings of foreigners, called on its “holy fighters to strike the infidels with an iron fist.” It offered $100,000 to the killer of Jafaari, $50,000 for Jabr and $30,000 for Dulaimi.
“What the American forces and Iraq’s traitors, the tails of the infidels, did in Tal Afar is a genocide to the Sunni people in this great city,” the statement said.
In the days leading up the Tal Afar offensive, American forces carried out a series of air strikes and joined the Iraqi army in encircling the ancient city, about 100 kilometres from the Syrian border.
The insurgent fighters, thus, had plenty of warning the city would be attacked and fled the onslaught in a classic guerrilla retreat. Tal Afar has now been swept clear of extremists for the second time in a year.
“The terrorists had seen it coming [and prepared] tunnel complexes to be used as escape routes,” said Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, deputy chief of staff for coalition forces in Iraq.
Signalling their frustration in having to repeat the assault on the city, Iraqi and US military leaders vowed to redouble efforts to crush insurgents operating all along the Syrian frontier and in the Euphrates River valley.
As Baghdad maintained the closure of a border crossing into Syria, Dulaimi issued a warning: “The Syrians have to stop sending destruction to Iraq. We know the terrorists have no other gateway into Iraq but Syria.” A Syrian foreign ministry official reacted angrily Monday, rejecting the Iraqi claim as “absolutely untrue.” The official SANA news agency in Damascus did not name the official who was quoted as saying, “Iraqi officials are fully aware that Syria is exerting all-out efforts to control the borders.” The United States and Iraq routinely charge that Syria’s government does little to stop the flow of Arab fighters across the border. Syrian leaders contend they are doing all they can.
Dulaimi, the defence minister, said the offensive in Tal Afar would be a model as his forces soon thrust farther west towards the Syrian border and south into the Euphrates valley.
“After the Tal Afar operation ends, we will move on Rabiyah and Sinjar [both nearer to Syria] and then go down to the Euphrates valley,” he said.
“We are warning those who have given shelter to terrorists that they must stop, kick them out or else we will cut off their hands, heads and tongues as we did in Tal Afar,” Dulaimi added, apparently using figurative language.
Most of Tal Afar’s residents â€” 90 per cent of whom are Turkomen â€” fled before the fighting, and tens of thousands are living in tent cities to the north and east. Food, water and medical supplies are scarce.
“This camp is suffering from the lack of medicine. I need an ambulance to evacuate the critical cases,” said Dr Abdullah Jassem, the only physician at a camp near the village of Alouliyah. The Iraqi and Turkish Red Crescent societies have rushed aid to the refugees.
In other developments on Monday:
â€” Police in eastern Baghdad reported finding the bodies of 10 unidentified men, their hands tied and shot to death.
â€” Gunmen shot and killed a bodyguard of the mayor of Mahmoudiya, a town about 30 kilometres south of Baghdad. The mayor was unhurt, police said.
â€” Two Kurdish security guards died and three were wounded when gunmen opened fire on their vehicle in the northern town of Mosul. On the city’s outskirts, police said they found two badly burned dead bodies.
â€” In Baghdad’s southern neighbourhood of Dora, two men were killed in separate drive-by shootings, police said.
â€” In Kirkuk, unidentified gunmen opened fire on a police car and killed the two policemen inside. The city, 290 kilometres north of Baghdad, has been the scene of numerous such attacks.