BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. and Iraqi soldiers killed nearly 150 suspected insurgents Saturday in a new offensive to clean out Tal Afar, a northern city near the Syrian border, Iraqi officials said
The offensive—which includes 5,000 Iraqi soldiers—is the largest since U.S. forces entered Fallujah in November, leveling much of that city.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari also ordered his nation's border with Syria "sealed" to transportation on Saturday in a bid to stop insurgents from entering his country. But his decree is easier issued than enforced, as the border is some 300 miles long and manpower is spread quite thin.
Also Saturday, neighboring Jordan's prime minister and several cabinet members visited Iraq in a symbolic show of support for the new government, marking the first time that leaders from an Arab nation have visited here since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003.
In Tal Afar, forces conducted house-to-house searches for suspected insurgents in what has become a largely desolate community. Insurgents had forced some residents out in the last few months; others left more recently in anticipation of the offensive. Al-Jaafari approved the operation Friday, although there had been clashes in the area between U.S. forces and suspected insurgents for several days.
At a press conference Saturday, Iraq's Defense Minister Sadoun al-Dulaimi said 141 suspected terrorists had been killed and another 197 had been injured. Bayan Jabr, the nation's Interior Minister, said another 48 had been captured.
But not all residents of Tal Afar endorsed the approach. Indeed, the mayor, Mohammed Rasheed, reportedly resigned over the offensive, saying the government should have addressed the tensions through negotiations.
Others, including Sheikh Hassan Badash, a local tribal leader, said residents supported the offensive. Badash said residents are tired of being forced to give up their homes to insurgents. Badash said he has fled the city and is looking for homes for other residents who also have left.
"The terrorists have threatened most families and forced them to leave their homes. After those families left, the insurgents entered their houses and just occupied them," Badash said. The Iraqi and U.S. forces have "started to purify the area from terrorists."
Al-Dulaimi said Saturday that he expected the offensive to last several more days.
Because the city is only about 60 miles from the Syrian border, both U.S. and Iraqi officials here had said they believe foreign fighters are traveling there. Its population is largely Sunni Turkomen, with ethnic and cultural links to Turkey.
Al-Jaafari also welcomed Jordanian Prime Minister Adnan Badran to Iraq, along with Jordan's ministers of energy, planning and interior. The visit marked efforts by both nations to improve their strained relations.
Before the war, Iraq was Jordan's top trading partner. After the war, Iraq has complained that Jordan has not done enough to stop foreign fighters from crossing their shared border. In December, Jordan's King Abdullah II said he was concerned about what effect Iran was having on Iraq, angering some leaders here.
On Saturday, Badran said he was in Iraq to re-establish ties between the two nations.
"We want to strengthen the commercial, economic relationship," Badran said.
In another development, government officials said they agreed to pay 50 percent of their outstanding bills to re-open Baghdad International Airport, which a private security company shut down Friday for want of pay. It reopened Saturday. The Iraqi government had not paid the company for six months.
Also, just south of Baghdad in Iskandariya, police found the bodies of 18 men handcuffed and shot to death. Police there believe the men were Shiites and killed by Sunni death squads.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.