U.S. and Iraqi forces allowed civilians to return to Tal Afar on Tuesday, signaling an end to a siege of the northern city that killed dozens of people and angered U.S. ally Turkey.
The lifting of the siege came a day after Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul warned American officials that Ankara would stop cooperating in Iraq if U.S. forces continued to harm the Turkish minority in the country’s north. Tal Afar is a center for Iraq’s ethnic Turkmen.
Civilian cars crossed the checkpoint on Tal Afar’s outskirts Tuesday and troops searched others wishing to return. Police vans patrolled the streets as people cautiously moved back into town.
“Everyone can go in,” Iraqi Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Barhawy said. “We expect one-third to go in today and by the time they hear about it and get together they will probably go in tomorrow.”
No U.S. troops were visible in Tal Afar on Tuesday, and al-Barhawy said American forces had left Iraqis in charge of security.
American troops and Iraqi forces overran Tal Afar — one of several Iraqi cities they say had fallen into the hands of insurgents — on Sunday after a nearly two-week siege that forced scores of residents to flee and left a trail of devastated buildings and rubble.
U.S. commanders said they moved in on Tal Afar at the behest of regional officials who lost control of the city. American intelligence believed Tal Afar had become a haven for militants smuggling men and arms from across the Syrian border.
Turkmen officials there said 58 people were killed during a 12-day assault by U.S. and Iraqi government forces. The Turkmen are an ethnic Turkish minority in Iraq but make up the majority of Tal Afar’s population.
Gul said Monday he spoke with Secretary of State Colin Powell “and told him that what is being done there is harming the civilian population, that it is wrong, and that if it continues, Turkey’s cooperation on issues regarding Iraq will come to a total stop.”
Residents who fled the fighting had pleaded with U.S. forces to return to dispose of bodies said to be left in the streets. Police said the corpses were picked up before civilians returned.