"Operation Restoring Rights is being conducted to remove terrorists and foreign fighters operating in Tal Afar. This operation is in support of the Iraqi governments efforts to bring safety and security to the citizens of the city," Colonel Billy J Buckner, a military spokesman, said on Sunday.

Buckner said Iraqi and US troops had captured 211 people, killed 141 suspected fighters and confiscated nine weapons caches since 26 August.

While several hundred fighters using small arms initially put up stiff resistance in the city's ancient Sarai district, Iraqi forces reported only two men wounded in the day's fighting.

The US military issued no casualty report for the 3500 Americans in the operation.

Foreign fighters

As the day wore on, fighting died down, said Colonel HR McMasters, commander of the 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment. He said the joint force found the Sarai neighbourhood nearly deserted once the shooting ended.

Sadoun al-Dulaimi said the 
offensive would
continue

"The enemy decided to bail out," he said.

McMasters said the vast majority of fighters captured in that period were "Iraqis and not foreigners".

According to a local Iraqi journalist interviewed by Aljazeera, there are very few foreign combatants in the area.

"Every time the US army and the Iraqi government want to destroy a specific city, they claim it hosts Arab fighters and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi," Nasir Ali said. 

When asked about the presence of Iraqi fighters in Tal Afar, Ali said local fighters were confronting the US army.

However, al-Qaida in Iraq accused the US forces of using the most destructive of weapons and the most poisonous of gases in their offensive in Tal Afar.

In a tape posted on an internet site and attributed to its leader al-Zarqawi, Al-Qaida in the Land of Two Rivers said the US and Iraqi forces would inevitably taste defeat.

Border closed

Late on Saturday, the prime minister ordered the Rabiyah border crossing closed in an attempt to stop the flow of foreign fighters from Syria, which is 96km from Tal Afar.

Faysal Ibrahim, the head of Syria's Customs Department, has confirmed that Iraqi authorities closed the Rabiyah crossing at 11am (0800 GMT).

Ibrahim said US helicopters were seen on Sunday morning about 500 metres from the Syrian border.

About 500 cargo trucks were lined up at the crossing after the closure.

Continued battles

With the Tal Afar offensive under way, the Iraqi defence
minister signalled his US-trained forces would not stop
after this operation and vowed to move against fighters opposed to the presence of foreign troops in Iraq everywhere.

Sunni Turkmen complain they are
badly
treated by the government

"We say to our people ... we are coming," said Defence Minister Sadoun al-Dulaimi.

The offensive in Tal Afar, 418km northwest of Baghdad, is delicate because of the tangle of ethnic sensitivities.

About 90% of the city's 200,000 people - most of whom fled
to the countryside before the fighting - are Sunni Turkmen
who have complained about their treatment from the Shia-dominated government and police force put in place after the US invasion in 2003.

Addressing that complaint, Jabr announced on Saturday that 1000 additional police officers would be hired in Tal Afar after the offensive and that they would be chosen from the Turkmen population.

Turkmen

The Turkmen have a vocal ally in their Turkish brethren to the north, where Turkey's government is a vital US ally and has fought against its own Kurdish insurgency for decades. Tal Afar is next to land controlled by Iraqi Kurds.

Turkey voiced disapproval of US tactics when American forces ran fighters out of Tal Afar a year ago. The Turkmen residents complained that Iraqi Kurds were fighting alongside the Americans.

US and Kurdish officials denied the allegation, but the Turkish government threatened to stop cooperating with the Americans.

The siege was lifted the next day and fighters began returning when the Americans quickly pulled out, leaving behind only a skeleton force of 500 soldiers.

Neighbours blamed

For those reasons, US forces stood back during the new sweep through Tal Afar, allowing Iraqi forces to break down doors in the search for fighters. The Americans followed behind, securing positions while the Iraqis advanced.

"I regret to say that instead of sending medicines to us, our Arab brothers are sending terrorists"

Sadoun al-Dulaimi,
Iraqi Defence Minister

Twelve hours after the offensive began, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said fighters had been trying "to isolate Tal Afar from the political process as we are preparing for the referendum on the draft constitution".

Al-Dulaimi, who joined al-Jaafari at the news conference, said he expected the offensive to last three days and complained Iraq's neighbours had not done enough to stop the flow of foreign fighters.

"I regret to say that instead of sending medicines to us, our Arab brothers are sending terrorists," al-Dulaimi said.

Also in Baghdad, the head of the Ahl-al-Sunna Congress in Iraq, Adnan al-Dulaimi, urged the Iraqi government to end what he called "arbitrary acts" against the Iraqi people.

Speaking at a press conference in Baghdad on Sunday, al-Dulami said his group was determined to participate in the political process in Iraq.

British soldier killed

Sunday also saw a British soldier killed and three others injured in an attack in southern Iraq, the Ministry of Defence said.

 

The attack in Basra province happened at 11.15am, a spokeswoman for the ministry said. She gave no details of the attack but said an investigation was under way.


Aljazeera learned the wounded were transported to hospital at the military base in al-Shiaiba, south of Basra.

 

British troops and the Iraqi army cordoned off the area.
 
Further violence

No casualties among US soldiers
in Tal Afar have been reported

The US army meanwhile, also reported that a soldier was killed and two others wounded when an explosive device targeting their patrol blew up in Samarra.
 
In Baghdad, an officer in the Interior Ministry, Major-General Adnan Abd al-Hamza, was killed by attackers in al-Ghazaliya neighbourhood.
 
Three Iraqi soldiers were killed in Falluja when their patrol was attacked.

 

In Kirkuk, eight Iraqis, three of them from the police force, were wounded when three explosive devices blew up at a passing police patrol in the city centre.
 
An assassination attempt against a member of the Diyala governorate council left him wounded along with three of his guards in an attack against his convoy on his way to work.
 
In al-Rustumiya, the police found two unidentified dead bodies of two men shot in the head.