American troops lay siege to insurgent-held northeastern Iraqi city
September 10, 2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – U.S. troops handed over medical supplies to Iraqi relief workers Friday amid a siege of a northeastern ethnic Turkish city where Iraqi and American forces are trying to root out hundreds of militants.
Despite criticism from Turkey and Shiite leaders, U.S. commanders insisted they will the maintain their blockade of Tal Afar for as long as it takes to subdue what they said were foreign fighters holed up there. The campaign was part of a recently launched American effort to restore government authority to lawless areas of the country – either through negotiation or by force.
“We are going to apply the necessary pressure to make sure that we are able to root out the enemy,” said Lt. Col. Paul Hastings, spokesman for the Army’s Task Force Olympia. “How long it takes is really dependent on them.”
But the siege of Tal Afar, which the Americans describe as a hub for militants smuggling fighters and arms from Syria, was criticized from within and outside Iraq.
A leading Shiite Muslim cleric, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, said the Americans’ use of heavy force in the city caused “catastrophes” that could have been avoided if Iraqis were in charge of security. The Americans have said they were fighting “a large terrorist organization.”
“Since the first day after (Saddam Hussein’s) regime collapsed, Tal Afar had terrorist groups, and this is not new,” al-Hakim told The Associated Press on Friday. “The new thing is that the military operations are huge.”
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Al-Hakim leads the biggest Shiite political party in Iraq and is close to Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Turkey also said the United States should end its military operations in Tal Afar quickly, saying the attacks have caused casualties among the mostly ethnic Turks living there.
Turkey has asked U.S. officials “not to harm the civilian population and avoid using excessive and non-selective force,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Namik Tan said, according to the semiofficial Anatolia news agency.
In Baghdad’s sprawling Sadr City slum, meanwhile, fighting resumed between U.S. forces and militants loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, wounding seven Iraqis, hospital officials said.
Al-Sadr’s al-Mahdi Army fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades and bullets at U.S. patrols, which immediately returned fire, said Capt. Brian O’Malley of the 1st Brigade Combat Team. There were no American casualties, he said.
Elsewhere, about 1,000 protesters marched through Najaf’s old quarter demanding that the cleric and his aides leave the devastated holy city, raising tensions a day after a 60-member Iraqi force raided his offices.
The demonstrators – who chanted, “Muqtada, the trash, is a leader of looters!” – walked past buildings wrecked by weeks of fighting that ended with last month’s peace deal, insisting that al-Sadr’s office be shut down. Iraqi soldiers kept the protesters from marching to his offices.
Ever defiant, an al-Sadr lieutenant condemned the raid in a Friday sermon delivered to 2,000 followers at the nearby Kufa mosque, saying it mirrored the brutal tactics used by Saddam Hussein to intimidate Iraqis.
“Those who break into our houses steal money and other things …. so what is the difference between them and the former regime?” said al-Sadr aide Hashim Abu Regheef.
He also sought to rally the crowd amid signs of dwindling support for the cleric and his strident opposition to U.S. forces and the interim Iraqi authorities since the al-Mahdi Army lost control of Najaf in late August after weeks of devastating fighting with U.S. Marines.
“We have to sacrifice our lives for his sake,” Regheef told the crowd.
In another development that could inflame tensions in Najaf, a little-known militant group threatened in footage broadcast Friday to kill four kidnapped policemen they accused of harassing al-Sadr.
The group, calling itself “The Joint Forces to Get Rid of Spies,” said the officers would die within 72 hours if authorities did not issue a statement ordering a halt to activities against al-Sadr and his followers. It did not specify those activities.
The pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera aired footage showing the hostages sitting on the floor as four masked armed men stood behind them.
Late Friday, key al-Sadr deputy Ahmed al-Shibani told Al-Jazeera that the cleric’s movement had nothing to do with the kidnapping, and he called for the hostages’ release.
“The police are not a part from the occupation so they have to be released,” al-Shibani said.
The latest violence in Najaf lasted for three weeks and ended only when al-Sistani brokered a peace deal. The clashes ruined many of Najaf’s streets, markets and buildings, damaging the city’s economy.
Outside Tal Afar, American soldiers stopped and searched vehicles trying to enter the city, allowing entry to ambulances and other vehicles carrying medicine and food to residents.
A series of airstrikes on the city Thursday killed at least 67 insurgents, Hastings said. The provincial health director, Dr. Rabie Yassin, said 27 civilians were killed and 70 wounded.
Also Friday, an American warplane fired missiles into the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, the fourth day of attacks targeting a city that also is outside government control, the military said. The target was earthmoving equipment used to build trenches and other fortifications, the military said.
One man was killed in the attack, said Dr. Ahmed Thaer of the Fallujah General Hospital.