Thousands of US and Iraqi troops pressed on with an all-out offensive yesterday to wrest control of a town near the Syrian border from insurgents, with the US military expecting to wrap up the operation in days.
The Iraq Red Crescent said up to 7,000 families were fleeing the fighting in the northern town of Tal Afar, scene of the biggest operation against rebels since the US-led onslaught on the restive town of Fallujah last November.
The US military said more than 141 "terrorists" had been killed in Tal Afar since late last month and another 211 captured, along with weapons caches.
"By the 15th of September we should be done. The enemy will be defeated," said US commander Major Robert Molinari.
"There's no areas they are controlling, they are either on the run or dead," he said, adding that rebels had been isolated in the southeastern Saray district of the city.
Fighting has been raging for more than a week in Tal Afar, a town between the main northern city of Mosul and the Syrian border that US commanders say has become a major staging post for foreign fighters infiltrating Iraq.
Iraq announced Saturday the closure of the Rafia border crossing into Syria, imposed an overnight curfew in the area and banned the carrying of weapons.
The Iraqi Red Crescent warned that the humanitarian situation in the town of 300,000 was "critical" and reported a mass exodus of between 5,000 to 7,000 families.
A 500-tent camp has been set up in Abu Maria, some 20km east of Tal Afar, and the Red Crescent has installed 40 toilets and 20 water tanker trucks. A team of doctors and volunteers have been sent to the scene.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari said Friday he had given the go-ahead for the assault after days of deadly clashes failed to dislodge the rebels. Around 4,000 US troops and 6,000 Iraqis are involved in the operation, dubbed "Restoring Rights."
Jaafari insisted the offensive was not aimed at any particular ethnic group in the town, which is divided between Sunni Arabs and Shiite Turkmen, some of whom have fled in recent months complaining of persecution by the Sunni Arab rebels.
Iraqi and US troops were acting "on behalf of all the different religious and ethnic elements in Tal Afar and in response to their appeals for help," the premier said.
"[The rebels] have driven people from their homes. They want to deny the citizens of Tal Afar their future in a democratic and peaceful Iraq. We want to guarantee those rights. These operations are being conducted precisely for that purpose."
But the town's Sunni Arab mayor, Mohammed Rasheed, tendered his resignation in protest at what he described as a sectarian operation.
"The operation is targeting Sunni neighborhoods," he complained.