MOSUL, Iraq, (Reuters) – Iraqi and U.S. forces have launched an attack on the northern city of Tal Afar to rid it of suspected terrorists, Iraq”s Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari said on Saturday.
"At 2 a.m. today, acting on my orders, Iraqi forces commenced an operation to remove all remaining terrorist elements from the city of Tal Afar. These forces are operating with support from the Multi-National Force," he said in a statement.
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.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have long said Tal Afar was being used as a conduit for equipment and foreign fighters smuggled in from Syria to fight the Kurdish- and Shi”ite Muslim-led Iraqi government and occupying U.S. forces across the country.
The Defence Ministry said the operation was still under way at 0730 GMT.
"Iraqi army operations are continuing in cleaning up the city of Tal Afar. We are now cleaning up Hey al-Sarai, the last area of the city," a ministry official said.
"There are no casualties from the Iraqi army but 12 of the enemy were killed and 15 captured."
Hospital sources in Tal Afar said the assault started with air strikes on the city centre, adding that there were tanks surrounding the area and gun fire was heard during the night.
They had no reports of civilian casualties by 0615 GMT.
Jaafari and U.S. Major General Rick Lynch have both warned in recent days that a full assault on Tal Afar was imminent.
Civilians have been evacuated from the town as military operations were stepped up.
"The terrorist elements being targeted by this operation are guilty of blatant crimes against its people. They are enemies of Iraq," Jaafari said.
"They have committed murder. They have driven people from their homes. They want to deny the citizens of Tal Afar their future in a democratic and peaceful Iraq. We want to guarantee those rights. These operations are being conducted precisely for that purpose."
Lynch warned earlier in the week that the United States was considering "decisive" military action to put down the insurgency in the town.
"In Tal Afar, coalition forces and members of the Iraqi security forces are preparing a possible military operation to rid that city of insurgents," he said.
"If indeed decisive military operations are required, we want to ensure that the attacks … kill the insurgents without collateral damage in killing innocent civilians," he added.
On Friday, state-run Iraqiya TV showed bodies lying among ruined buildings, with a ticker on the screen saying: "These are the crimes that the terrorists committed in Tal Afar."
The television said 15 bodies had been found and showed at least four cars and one truck destroyed, houses ruined and furniture strewn outside homes as women nearby wept.
Iraqiya also showed Iraqi soldiers carrying out house-to-house searches across the town.
The insurgents are mainly drawn from Iraq”s Sunni Arab community. Sunnis account for some 20 percent of the population and have dominated Iraqi politics for decades, under ousted leader Saddam Hussein and before.
Lynch said intelligence reports suggested some 20 percent of insurgents in Tal Afar were "foreign fighters".
He said U.S. and Iraqi forces had been trying to wipe out the insurgency since May. They have so far failed, but Lynch said the growing number of U.S.-trained Iraqi government troops, there are now 190,000 of them, he said, should mean the resources were in place to quell future insurgencies.