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Iraq Transition

Residents fleeing Tal Afar

Fear of military attack on insurgents spurs exodus

From Jane Arraf


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MOSUL, Iraq (CNN) -- As U.S. soldiers construct a wall around the troubled city of Tal Afar to keep out fighters and weapons, residents are fleeing in fear of an imminent military attack by American and Iraqi forces against insurgents still in the city, according to a senior military commander.

"It's not a mass exodus right now, but people have moved out of the city along kinship lines," Col. H.R. McMaster, commander of the Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry, which is responsible for security in Tal Afar, told CNN.

He said several thousand civilians have left in the past few months and more are continuing to leave, with most going to the countryside to stay with relatives. McMaster said the military was assessing civilian movements to be able to provide food, water and medical attention if it became needed.

Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez of the U.S. Army's Task Force Freedom said he was discussing with Iraqi leaders how best to handle the continuing violence in Tal Afar, where parts of the city are still controlled by insurgents.

"We're still working through that," he told CNN. He said a U.S. military offensive there in June appears to have had only "a temporary disruptive effect" on the insurgency. Rodriguez said tension in the city has risen over the past few weeks.

Police in the city, crippled by defections and allegations of torture and corruption, number fewer than 200. More are being trained. McMaster said the regional government is setting up a commission to examine claims of abuse by the police.

Soldiers have been moving earth to construct a trench and a berm around Tal Afar, forcing traffic to go through rather than around security checkpoints. U.S. Army engineers in Mosul have recently completed a 64-kilometer dirt berm around that city to stem the flow of insurgents and weapons.

McMaster said he believes recent arrests in Tal Afar and at the Syrian border have significantly disrupted the insurgency's ability to operate. But he said insurgents and foreign fighters in parts of the city are continuing to terrorize the population.

"They're afraid to move from passive support (of the insurgents) to active opposition because they're afraid their families will be killed," he said.

McMaster said U.S. and Iraqi forces made a series of major arrests near the Iraqi/Syrian border crossing of Rabiya last month, detaining 26 people and seizing money, drugs and equipment used to manufacture false Iraqi IDs and passports.

Although the majority of the men arrested were Iraqi, several Syrians were believed to be in the group. The find included a suitcase of cocaine and amphetamines.

"It severely disrupted the enemy's ability to bring foreign terrorists into Iraq," McMaster said. He said the military had not announced the arrests until now because they were gathering information for more arrests.

Rabiya is one of two official border crossings with Syria currently open. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been installing equipment and advising border police in an effort to find foreign fighters, weapons and other contraband still coming into the country.

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