U.S. Troops Sweep Into Empty Insurgent Haven in Iraq

Soldiers from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment walk over the demolished front gate of a house to search for weapons and insurgents in Tall Afar. Forces expected a fierce fight in the Sarai area.
Soldiers from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment walk over the demolished front gate of a house to search for weapons and insurgents in Tall Afar. Forces expected a fierce fight in the Sarai area. (Photos By Jacob Silberberg -- Associated Press)
By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 11, 2005

TALL AFAR, Iraq, Sept. 10 -- The moment the Iraqi troops launched their attack just after 7 a.m. Saturday, 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 spree was only going in 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 U.S. troops waiting to join the assault.

By the time the Americans entered Sarai -- in a rare supporting role to an Iraqi battalion comprising mostly the Kurdish pesh merga 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 dead bodies were found.

For many of the more than 5,000 U.S. and Iraqi soldiers in the city, Saturday 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 Cpl. 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 U.S. military had identified here. One U.S. 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 Tall Afar in the previous weeks," said Col. H.R. McMaster, commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. "The enemy then decided to bail out. They knew they were being destroyed."

The operation in Tall Afar, which U.S. and Iraqi officials have long considered a strategic hub for insurgents carrying out attacks across northern Iraq, will continue into the coming days, commanders here said. The city of more than 200,000 has been plagued by insurgent violence and clashes between Sunni and Shiite Muslim tribes. A year ago this month, American forces drove insurgents from the city only to see them return when U.S. troop strength in the region was reduced to about 500 soldiers. The total number of troops involved in this operation was 8,500, McMaster said.

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 on Saturday, 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 Tall Afar.

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