U.S. and Iraqi forces have encircled the insurgent stronghold of Tal Afar, and Iraqi authorities on Thursday announced the arrest of 200 suspected insurgents there — most of them foreign fighters.
The Iraqi military said 150 of those arrested Wednesday in this town near the Syrian border were Arabs from Syria, Sudan, Yemen and Jordan.
The joint forces have reported heavy battles on the outskirts of the city and several deadly bombings that have mainly killed civilians. Iraqi authorities reported most of the civilian population had fled the city, which is 260 miles north of Baghdad and about 35 miles from the Syrian border.
“Our forces arrested 150 non-Iraqi Arabs yesterday in addition to 50 Iraqi terrorists with fake documents as they were trying to flee the city with the (civilian) families,” said Iraqi army Capt. Mohammed Ahmed.
“We ordered the families to evacuate the Sunni neighborhood of Sarai, which is believed to be the main stronghold of the insurgents,” Ahmed said
Eight civilians were killed in the city Wednesday by a suicide car bomber at an Iraqi checkpoint, he said.
Tal Afar is 90 percent Turkmen, and 70 percent of them are Sunnis. After the ouster of Saddam Hussein, the United States installed a largely Shiite leadership in the city, including the mayor and much of the police force.
The Sunni majority has complained of oppression by the government and have turned to the insurgents — who are mainly Sunnis — for protection.
U.S. vehicle destroyed
Early Thursday, a militant Web site carried a videotape showing the destruction of a U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicle in Tal Afar. The video, emblazoned with the logo of al-Qaida in Iraq, claimed the armored vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb.
The military issued no immediate response to the claim. The militant video did not say if there were casualties, although the force of the blast would suggest there had been. There were several large explosions of ordnance in the tank after the initial blast.
Twenty miles south of Baghdad, police Thursday reported finding 14 unidentified bodies near the farming town of Mahmoudiya. “All the bodies are in civilian clothes and have no identification documents,” said Lt. Adnan Abdullah of the Mahmoudiya police. They had been shot to death, he said.
Two more decomposing bodies, blindfolded and handcuffed, were found on the outskirts of Baghdad, near a sewage plant, police said.
American hostage freed after 10 months
On Wednesday, the U.S. military, acting on a tip, raided an isolated farmhouse outside Baghdad and rescued an American businessman held hostage for 10 months. The kidnappers, who had kept their captive bound and gagged.
Roy Hallums, 57, was “in good condition and is receiving medical care,” a military statement said after U.S. forces freed him and an unidentified Iraqi from the farmhouse 15 miles south of Baghdad.
Lt. Col. Steven A. Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman, said the tipster whose information led to Hallums’ release was captured just a few hours before the operation.
Hallums, formerly of Newport Beach, Calif., was kidnapped at gunpoint from his office in the Mansour district of Baghdad on Nov. 1, 2004. At the time, he was working for the Saudi Arabian Trading and Construction Co., supplying food to the Iraqi army. The kidnappers also seized a Filipino, a Nepalese and three Iraqis, but later freed them.
“Considering what he’s been through, I understand he’s in good condition,” said Hallums’ ex-wife, Susan Hallums, 53, of Corona, Calif.
The family Web site was topped with a headline: Roy IS FREE!!!!!! 9/7/05.
More than 200 foreigners have been abducted in Iraq since the war began in March 2003; more than 30 have been killed.
The rescue coincided with two deadly bombings detonated around the southern city of Basra. A roadside bomb killed four private American security agents working for the State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security. And an Interior Ministry official said 16 people were killed and 21 were injured in a car bombing at a restaurant in a central market.
The bombing was noteworthy because attacks against Americans around Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, are rare. The U.S. has only a minimal presence in the area. Also, Shiites, who are the dominant population in the south, have found themselves the political winners as new government structures take shape after the U.S.-led invasion.
In a statement posted on a Web site known as a clearing house of militant claims, al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack.
The car bombing later Wednesday at a takeout restaurant in a central Basra market killed 16 and wounded 21, said an Interior Ministry official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
The felafel restaurant is in the Hayaniyah district market, a Shiite section of the city, Basra police Lt. Col. Karim al-Zaidi said. Two police vehicles and several nearby shops were destroyed in the blast.
Despite a peaceful postwar history in the south, violence has spiked in the past two months with attacks on Britons.