As Offensive in Iraq Continues, Troops Find Unexpected Quiet

In tears, a woman tells a U.S. soldier that she wants to return to her house in Tall Afar. Many residents had fled before an offensive against insurgents.
In tears, a woman tells a U.S. soldier that she wants to return to her house in Tall Afar. Many residents had fled before an offensive against insurgents. (By Akram Saleh -- Getty Images)
By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 12, 2005

TALL AFAR, Iraq, Sept. 11 -- For the second day, U.S. and Iraqi forces mounting a large-scale offensive in this northwestern city had little contact with insurgents Sunday, as troops conducted house-to-house searches through largely abandoned neighborhoods and detained a handful of young men.

The 8,500 U.S. and Iraqi troops involved in the operation had expected fighting to be most intense in the Sarai neighborhood, an insurgent stronghold in the eastern part of the city. But since entering Sarai on Saturday, they have found the neighborhood deserted, residents and insurgents apparently having fled during a week-long U.S. bombing campaign.

Hundreds of insurgents have been captured in the offensive. The military reported that 156 insurgents had been killed in the fighting so far, revising downward an earlier estimate of more than 200.

"The shaping operations that we conducted before crossing into Sarai are the reason why we haven't seen the resistance we expected," said Maj. Chris Kennedy, executive officer for the Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which is leading the assault.

More than half of the 200,000 or so residents of Tall Afar have fled the city in the past year as sectarian and insurgent violence has flared. U.S. and Iraqi officials consider the city a logistics hub for insurgents operating across northern Iraq.

For the second consecutive day, U.S. forces followed several hundred Iraqi soldiers, from a unit made up mostly of troops from the Kurdish pesh merga militia, into a section of Sarai, where most residents are Sunni Muslim Turkmens, ethnic relatives of Turks.

With no one to fight and few suspects to detain, the troops treated the neighborhood as a large crime scene, gathering items they found suspicious from the dozens of homes they entered and searched over several hours. The only sounds of battle were occasional sporadic gunfire and resounding booms -- the controlled detonations of roadside bombs that were discovered throughout the day.

The operation is expected to continue in other parts of the city for several more days.

In Baghdad, Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch told reporters, "We will continue to work away so we have covered every inch of Sarai, and then every inch of Tall Afar, until we've killed all the terrorists and foreign fighters there."

A group linked to the insurgent organization al Qaeda in Iraq published a statement on a Web site used by such groups saying it would retaliate against Iraqi security forces in Baghdad for the operation in Tall Afar, according to the Associated Press.

"The Taifa al-Mansoura Army has decided to . . . strike at strategic and other targets of importance for the occupation and the infidels in Baghdad by using chemical and unconventional weapons developed by the mujaheddin, unless the military operations in Tall Afar stop within 24 hours," the statement said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company