US and Iraqi troops sweep into the insurgent stronghold of Tal Afar early yesterday, conducting house-to-house searches and battering down walls with armored vehicles in a second bid to clean the city of militant fighters.
South of Baghdad, police made yet another gruesome discovery, uncovering the bodies of 18 men who had been handcuffed and shot to death.
"Two days ago gunmen in police uniforms broke into their houses in a Shiite neighborhood of Iskandariya," said police Captain Adel Kitab said.
Iskandariya is 50km south of Baghdad.
Dozens of bodies, apparently killed in summary executions in growing tit-for-tat vengeance killings by Shiite and Sunni "death squads" have been reported in recent weeks.
In the Tal Afar offensive, expected for weeks, coalition forces initially faced several hundred lightly armed insurgents in the largely deserted city, 420km northwest of Baghdad and about 100km east of the Syrian border.
There was heavy gunfire in the Sarai district -- the oldest part of the city and the major insurgent headquarters.
"I can see why the terrorists chose this place for a fight, it's like a big funnel of death," Sergeant William Haslett of Rocklin, California, said of the twisting streets and alleys in the old city.
Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari announced the 2am start of the all-out offensive in a statement issued yesterday.
Twelve hours later al-Jaafari told a news conference the insurgents had been trying to "to isolate Tal Afar from the political process as we are preparing for the referendum on the draft constitution .... So our duty is to protect the country and the people and spare no effort in helping all Iraqi people regardless to their backgrounds."
Tal Afar residents were largely Turkmen with ethnic and cultural ties to Turkey to the north. They are mostly Sunni Muslims but had been governed since the ouster of former president Saddam Hussein by a US-backed Shiite Muslim city government and police force.
Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said 48 insurgents were captured so far, along with mortar launchers and communications gear. He said Iraqi forces had suffered two wounded and no deaths.
Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi said he expected the offense to last three days, and bitterly complained that Iraq's Arab neighbors had not done enough to stop the flow of foreign fighters.
"I'm regret to say that instead of sending medicines to us, our Arab brothers are sending terrorists," al-Dulaimi told the news conference. In the past two days, he said 141 "terrorists" had been killed and 197 wounded. Five government soldiers died and three injured in the operation.
He said a total of 11 Iraqi Army battalions and three battalions of paramilitary police were engaged in the operation, along with three battalions of US forces.
"We say to our people in [insurgent strongholds of] Qaim, Rawa, Samarra and Ramadi -- we are coming and terrorists and criminals will not be able to hide there," al-Dulaimi said, in an indirect promise the Iraqi forces would broaden the offensive against the insurgents north and west of Baghdad, right to the Syrian border.
US forces cleared Tal Afar of militants last year but quickly withdrew, leaving behind a force of only 500 that was unable to block the militants' return.
In a bid to soften resistance, the US military had carried out repeated air and artillery strikes against the city, where most of the population of 200,000 was reported to have fled to the surrounding countryside.