TAL AFAR, Iraq – A joint U.S.-Iraqi force punched deep into Tal Afar, a key insurgent staging ground near the Syrian border, and the Iraqi army said Thursday it arrested 200 suspected militants in the sweep – three-fourths of them foreign fighters.
Most of the estimated civilian population of 200,000 have now fled this predominantly Turkmen city, where 70 percent of that ethnic group is Sunni Muslim – the sect that dominates the Iraqi insurgency. The U.S. military reported killing seven insurgents over the past two days amid growing indications the joint force was preparing to intensify the operation.
The sweep in Tal Afar came as election officials tallied figures from three Sunni-dominated provinces, where the voter registration was extended a week in preparation for the Oct. 15 nationwide referendum on the new constitution.
“Turnout was unbelievable and people were very enthusiastic, especially in Fallujah and Ramadi,” said Farid Ayar, an electoral commission spokesman. Those cities are Sunni insurgent bastions in Anbar province, which stretches west from Baghdad to the Syrian, Jordanian and Saudi borders.
The large voter signup suggests minority Sunnis are mobilizing to defeat the draft charter, a marked tactical shift from January, when their boycott of the parliamentary election handed control of the 275-member National Assembly to Shiites and Kurds.
The new basic law was approved and sent to voters by a coalition of Shiites and Kurds, over the objections of Sunni representatives, who fear it would allow the country to split into sectarian and ethnic mini-states. That could cut Sunnis out of Iraq’s enormous oil wealth.
In the Tal Afar sweep, Iraqi army Capt. Mohammed Ahmed said one of the captured insurgents was Amr Omayer, an Iraqi who allegedly was the most-wanted militant in the city and the commander of all insurgent operations launched from there.
Ahmed said some of those arrested could not speak Arabic.
“We believe they are Afghans, but we have not checked their nationalities so far,” he said. The Arab-speaking captives were from Syria, Sudan, Yemen and Jordan, he said, adding that the approximately 50 Iraqis rounded up in the sweep carried fake identity papers.
The joint force has reported heavy fighting around the perimeter of the city for several days and deadly bombings that mainly have killed civilians. Iraqi authorities said 80 percent of the civilian population has fled the city, about 260 miles north of Baghdad and 35 miles from Syria.
Eight civilians were killed in the city Wednesday by a suicide car bomber at an Iraqi checkpoint, he said.
The U.S. military is no stranger in Tal Afar – a haven for insurgents crossing into Iraq from Syria. 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 complained of oppression by the government and turned to the insurgents – who are mainly Sunnis – for protection.
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