The 6000 Iraqi and 4000 US troops were given the green light for an all-out offensive late last week after days of deadly clashes failed to dislodge fighters from Sunni Arab neighbourhoods of the ethnically divided town.

US Major Derrick Baxter reported on Monday just four attacks overnight, two with small arms and two makeshift bombs.

Colonel Greg Reilly said the fighters were using classic guerrilla tactics, melting away whenever confronted with superior numbers.

"They went into hiding, avoiding us. That's why there is no fighting ... . They are not putting up a fight," he said.

Al-Qaida man killed

Aljazeera learned that al-Qaida official in Tal Afar Hassan Muhammad Ali, also known as Abu al-Qasim, had been killed along with two of his colleagues by US air strikes.

A spokesman for the Iraqi Defence Ministry said US and Iraqi forces had killed 157 fighters and arrested 291 others in Tal Afar.
 
One Iraqi soldier was killed along with six civilians, the spokesman added.
 
Iraqi Interior Minister Jabr Solagh said the troops had dealt what he called a severe blow to al-Qaida in the town, prompting the network to threaten the use chemical weapons, according to him.

Baghdad bomb

On Monday night, a huge car bomb exploded outside a popular restaurant in Baghdad's upscale Mansour neighbourhood, witness said. Hospital officials reported at least one person killed and 17 wounded.

A doctor at Yarmuk hospital said most of the victims were women.

US ultimatum

Meanwhile, US troops continued to round up all men of fighting age in Sunni neighbourhoods where the fighters had held sway, after issuing an ultimatum for male residents to leave last Tuesday.

Masked Iraqi informers advised commanders which detainees to retain in custody and which to release.

Around 10,000 Iraqi and US
troops are in the town

Near the grain silos on the edge of town, US troops brought in dozens of men in traditional robes one by one for vetting by the informers. All were handcuffed. Some were also blindfolded.

Reilly said around half of the suspects picked up by his unit had been freed after informers gave them a clean bill of health, while about 150 had been arrested and remain in detention.

Other informers poured through files prepared by US troops on each detainee but many had difficulty reading the names scribbled down in English.

Foreign fighters?

US commanders have charged that many of the fighters in Tal Afar are foreign fighters who had turned the town into a staging post for volunteers infiltrating Iraq across the porous border with Syria further west.

But Reilly acknowledged that the 40 tanks and 40 armoured personnel carriers of his Tiger Squadron had actually been moved away from the town of Sinjar near the border where they were normally deployed to join the assault on Tal Afar.

Troops are using Iraqi informers
to identify suspected fighters

Sunni neighbourhoods of Tal Afar resembled a ghost town on Monday.

In the southeastern Saray district, which had been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting, a US Abrams tank manoeuvred through deserted streets.

As the fighters melted away, the fear which had stalked Tal Afar's large Shia Turkmen community for months finally eased and officers of the town's Shia-dominated police force returned to their posts.

Sectarian tensions

But with the removal of the threat that had prompted scores of Turkmen families to flee for the safety of Shia areas of central and southern Iraq, it was the Sunnis' turn to worry about sectarian retribution.

"We don't fear you. We fear the [Iraqi] police," Hazem Saeed, 50, told a US patrol in the Sunni neighbourhood of Qadisiyah.

"They went into hiding, avoiding us. That's why there is no fighting... They are not putting up a fight"

Colonel Greg Reilly,
US Army

"We don't want them [the police] here," echoed fellow resident Mohammed Yunis.

But Tal Afar police officers rejected suggestions that Sunni detainees risked being tortured by their men, in retaliation for the intimidation which had kept the force off the streets for weeks.

"We hand detainees directly to the Americans," Hussein Ali
insisted.

Al-Zarqawi threat

Fighters responded to the assault in a series of internet statements promising retaliation, including a voice recording attributed to al-Qaida's Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that accused the US military of using chemical weapons in the assault.

"O nation of Islam, your heroic children are writing with their own blood the most beautiful of epics ... in the towns of al-Qaim and Tal Afar ... where your Crusader enemies are using more destructive weapons including poison gas," the voice said.

Sectarian tensions are running
high in ethnically mixed Tal Afar

Another al-Qaida-linked group threatened to retaliate against US forces with chemical weapons.

An internet statement posted in the name of the Jaish al-Taefa al-Mansura, or Army of the Victorious Community, warned of reprisal attacks using "non-conventional and chemical weapons ... developed by the mujahidin ... unless the armed onslaught against the city of Tal Afar stops within 24 hours".

A third statement posted by the Islamic Army in Iraq - a group that has previously been linked to capturing and killing foreigners in the country - offered rewards to fighters who assassinate the Iraqi prime minister, interior minister and defence minister as revenge for the Tal Afar operation. 

None of the internet postings' authenticity could be verified.

US consulate attack

In other developments, Iraqi fighters launched a rocket attack overnight on the US consulate in the southern city of Basra.

Four 107mm Chinese-built rockets slammed into ousted leader Saddam Hussein's former Basra palace which houses both the US and the British consulates, a Western diplomat said.

"There were no casualties or injuries, and no significant
structural damage," according to the US embassy.

The attack was the latest in a series of attacks which have increased tension in an area that has remained relatively free of the fighting affecting much of the rest of the country.

British soldier killed

Also on Sunday, a British serviceman was killed and three injured in a bomb attack in Basra, six days after two more British soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing near the city.

The Danish battalion commander in the area, Colonel Flemming Toft, suggested the recent spike in violence might be linked to the 15 October referendum on the constitution, or a result of the fact that the rebels were having to redeploy because of US-led forces' pressure further north.

"The Americans are making it pretty hot for them elsewhere," he said.