US and Iraqi troops attack insurgent stronghold

US and Iraqi troops swept into the insurgent stronghold of Tal Afar early today, conducting house-to-house searches and battering down walls with armoured vehicles in a second bid to clean the city of militant fighters.

US and Iraqi troops swept into the insurgent stronghold of Tal Afar early today, conducting house-to-house searches and battering down walls with armoured vehicles in a second bid to clean the city of militant fighters.

South of Baghdad, Police made yet another gruesome discovery, uncovering the bodies of 18 men who had been handcuffed and shot to death.

“Two days ago gunmen in police uniforms broke into their houses in a Shiite neighbourhood of Iskandariya,” said police Capt. Adel Kitab said.

Iskandariya is 30 miles south of Baghdad. Dozens of bodies, apparently killed in summary executions in growing tit-for-tat vengeance killings by Shiite and Sunni “death squads” have been reported in recent weeks.

In the capital, Baghdad International Airport – the country’s only reliable and relatively safe link to the outside world – reopened early today after a day’s closure in a payment dispute between the government and a British security company.

London-based Global Strategies Group said it had agreed to return to work after the government promised to pay 50 percent of what the company said it was owed.

Iraq police said two mortar shells were fired into the Green Zone that houses the US Embassy, the Iraqi parliament and government offices. There was no word on casualties or damage.

In the Tal Afar offensive, expected for weeks, coalition forces initially faced several hundred lightly armed insurgents in the largely deserted city, 260 miles north-west of Baghdad and about 60 miles east of the Syrian border.

There was heavy gunfire in the Sarai district – the oldest part of the city and the major insurgent headquarters.

“I can see why the terrorists chose this place for a fight, it’s like a big funnel of death,” Sgt. William Haslett of Rocklin, California, said of the twisting streets and alleys in the old city.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari announced the 2am start of the all-out offensive in a statement issued today.

Twelve hours later al-Jaafari told a news conference the insurgents had been trying to “to isolate Tal Afar from the political process as we are preparing for the referendum on the draft constitution … . So our duty is to protect the country and the people and spare no effort in helping all Iraqi people regardless to their backgrounds.”

Tal Afar residents were largely Turkmen with ethnic and cultural ties to Turkey to the north. They are mostly Sunni Muslims but had been governed since the ousting of Saddam Hussein by a US-backed Shiite Muslim city government and police force.

Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said 48 insurgents were captured so far, along with mortar launchers and communications gear. He said Iraqi forces had suffered to wounded and no deaths.

Defence Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi said he expected the offence to last three days, and bitterly complained that Iraq’s Arab neighbours had not done enough to stop the flow of foreign fighters.

“I’m regret to say that instead of sending medicines to us, our Arab brothers are sending terrorists,” al-Dulaimi told the news conference. In the past two days, he said 141 terrorists had been killed and 197 wounded. Five government soldiers died and three injured in the operation.

He said a total of 11 Iraqi Army battalions and three battalions of paramilitary police were engaged in the operation, along with three battalions of US forces.

“We say to our people in (insurgent strongholds of) Qaim, Rawa, Samarra and Ramadi – we are coming and terrorists and criminals will not be able to hide there,” al-Dulaimi said, in an indirect promise the Iraqi forces would broaden the offensive against the insurgents north and west of Baghdad, right to the Syrian border.

US forces cleared Tal Afar of militants last year but quickly withdrew, leaving behind a force of only 500 that was unable to block the militants’ return.

In a bid to soften resistance, the US military had carried out repeated air and artillery strikes against the city, where most of the population of 200,000 was reported to have fled to the surrounding countryside.

On Friday, the government issued a statement hinting the operation was imminent, and the US military reported killing 11 insurgents during raids over the past two days. The Iraqi military claimed it had arrested 150 foreign fighters who had infiltrated from Syria.

In Baghdad, acting Transportation Minister Esmat Amer told The Associated Press that the city’s main airport – once known as Saddam International – had reopened after negotiations overnight between the government and the British company.

“We have reached agreement with the Global security firm, and the airport is open now for domestic and international flights,” said Amer.

Company spokesman Giles Morgan told The Associated Press from London that Global had agreed to return to work after the government promised to pay 50% of what was owed. Morgan said the company and the government were continuing talks on a future contract.

Amer confirmed the 50% agreement. “No one can blackmail us in this matter, our forces…are ready any time to take over the airport” Amer said.

The company had provided security at the sprawling facility 12 miles from central Baghdad since last year. On Friday, Global suspended operations claiming the Ministry of Transportation – which owns the airport – was seven months behind in payments.

Under a deal negotiated with the defunct US-led Coalition Provisional Authority, Global was to be paid $4.5m (€3.6m) a month for airport security. The CPA gave sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government last year, and it had sought unsuccessfully to re-negotiate the deal and reduce the charge since the first of this year.

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