September 15, 2004
TAL AFAR, Iraq (AP) -- Anxious civilians trickled back into Tal Afar Tuesday, digging through the rubble of buildings flattened during a nearly two-week siege by U.S.-led forces targeting foreign fighters holed up in the city astride a smuggling route to Syria.
The end of the blockade came a day after Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul warned American officials his country would stop cooperating in Iraq if the U.S. offensive against insurgents continued to harm the Turkish minority in Tal Afar, a center for Iraq's ethnic Turkmen.
American troops and Iraqi forces took control of the city on Sunday -- one of several Iraqi cities they said had fallen into the hands of insurgents -- after a siege that forced tens of thousands of residents to flee and left several buildings in ruins.
Turkmen officials say 58 people were killed during the 12-day assault by U.S. and Iraqi government forces. It was unclear how many of the dead were insurgents, but pickup trucks were seen removing about 40 bodies from Tal Afar, indicating they were not from the city.
The city's ethnic Turks contend Kurdish Peshmerga militias, wearing the uniforms of the Iraqi national guard, fought alongside U.S. forces in the assault on Tal Afar. They accuse their Kurdish antagonists of drawing American forces into their ethnic conflict and bombarding them to submission.
The U.S. military disputed that the operation in Tal Afar was a siege, saying it was a targeted operation with the aim of freeing the city from the hands of insurgents, including foreign fighters, who had turned it into a haven for militants smuggling men and arms from across the Syrian border.
Lt. Col. Paul Hastings, spokesman for the Army's Task Force Olympia, denied Kurds were using American forces to gain the upper hand in their long-standing struggle for control with ethnic Turks.
Hastings said the Iraqi national guardsmen fighting alongside U.S. forces came from a unit in Diyala, an Arab-dominated province east of Baghdad, and were not Peshmergas. ``They were not Peshmergas that were involved in this operation.''
He said the resistance in Tal Afar was made up of disparate group of former Saddam Hussein loyalists, religious extremists and foreign fighters who were united only by their opposition to U.S. forces.
He said he suspected most of the insurgents and foreign fighters had left or were killed during the operation. A small number may have melted into the civilian population. ``It might be a combination of all three,'' Hastings said.
Although no U.S. troops were visible in Tal Afar Tuesday, their green armored cars stood atop the low hills that surrounded the city.
Police vans patrolled the empty streets as people cautiously moved back into a town dotted by ravines and dense, dusty orchards of pomegranates, figs and berries. Just hours before the siege was lifted, a car bomb blew up on a road leading into Tal Afar, targeting a police convoy. Two policemen were wounded and a Syrian tanker carrying fuel exploded, injuring the driver.
The extended Shaykh-Lar family was among the hundreds of people who returned to their homes Tuesday.
``Honest to God, we are still afraid,'' said Hussein Shaykh-Lar, 74, an ethnic Turk, as he and his four sons and their families unloaded their belongings from a truck outside their homes in the Qadissiyah neighborhood. ``Will they bomb us again?'' he asked.
The only damage to their homes was broken glass. The girls started cleaning it up as the women tidied the rooms.
``It's as though my soul has returned to my body,'' said Najmah Chooban, 41, smiling broadly as she entered her two-bedroom house.
But across town, Tahsin Elias Hassan was not so lucky. He was killed as his stone house collapsed on his head when it was struck by American rockets. His brother, Mohammed, stared wordlessly Tuesday, inspecting what was left of his home, next door to his brother's.
Police commander Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Barhawy said the Americans had left security in the hands of the Iraqis.
All the ``resistance'' had either been killed or had fled town, and the police had not apprehended any militant, he said.
Civilians in pickup trucks returned to the empty streets of Tal Afar lined with blue shuttered shops.
Most were men who came alone to check on their homes and decide whether to send for families who had taken shelter in tents mosques, schools and in people's homes in nearby villages.
The town was still short on basic services. There was no electricity or water and the only hospital was almost nonfunctional.
On the empty Hassan Koy boulevard, Tal Afar's main street, Saber Younis stood behind his cigarette stall, smiling at passers-by.
He said business was brisk during the two-week siege because the few people who stayed behind were ``very stressed and needed to smoke.'' He sold 10 cartons a day, he said, while before the siege he only managed to sell two cartons a day.
Ammar Hussein, who never left town, complained the procedure for letting people back into Tal Afar was too slow because it took the Americans ``an hour to search every car.'' He was anxious for the return of his wife and children.