"American aircraft have struck the city of Karabila more than 10 times," a hospital source said on Tuesday.

The hospital source said families were beginning to leave Karabila after the air strikes and heading for Haditha, where the US military said earlier on Tuesday it had killed four fighters and captured another after an air strike on a house.
  
Iraqi troops, with US support, are currently winding up an operation to flush fighters from the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar.

The Iraqi army said it had killed 14 fighters and captured 35 on Tuesday on the fourth day of a major military assault.

Operations to end

"Today we have captured 35 terrorists and killed 14," Iraqi Captain Mohammed Berwari said in Tal Afar, a mostly ethnic Turkmen town near the Syrian border.
   
"Tal Afar is surrounded from all sides. Now the terrorists are running and the Iraqi army is chasing after them down the narrow streets.

US: Displaced Iraqis like these in 
tents can return to Tal Afar soon

"Operations will end soon and starting on Thursday people will start returning to their houses."
   
He added one Iraqi soldier was killed and five wounded by a roadside bomb in Tal Afar on Tuesday, and the army had found a large number of weapons caches, including three tonnes of munitions.

Defence Minister Saadoun Dulaimi warned that assaults were likely to follow on fighter targets in four other towns in western Iraq, including al-Qaim, which is next to Karabila.

The assault risks creating further division in an already fragmented society a month ahead of a referendum on a disputed constitution and the trial of ousted leader Saddam Hussein.

Tensions

Tensions between Iraq's three main communities, Shia, Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds were already high before the attack on Tal Afar, fuelled by Sunni Muslims fearing an erosion of their influence after decades of dominating Iraqi society. 
   

"We will set no timetable for withdrawal. A timetable will help the terrorists, will encourage them that they could defeat a superpower of the world and Iraqi people"

Jalal Talabani, Iraq president

They fear that if the constitution is approved in a referendum on 15 October, Iraq could assume a federal structure and Shia could achieve greater autonomy like that already enjoyed by the Kurds, further marginalising Sunni Arabs since the ouster of Saddam, himself a Sunni.
   
Sunni Arab negotiators have asked the United Nations for guarantees to ensure the referendum is fair, a member of the Sunni delegation said on Tuesday.
   
Hussein al-Falluji said the delegation told the UN special envoy to Iraq, Ashraf Qazi, that Sunni Arabs were frustrated, and rejected the constitution in its present form.
   
Tensions are also high ahead of the trial of Saddam, scheduled to start on 19 October. He will be tried on a single charge of mass killing at a village in reprisal for an assassination attempt against him in 1982.

Government officials have suggested that if found guilty, the courts could dispense with the need for further trials on other charges, so potentially opening the way for his early execution.

Syria under spotlight

The United States and Iraq say Tal Afar is a staging-post for arms and foreign fighters entering Iraq from Syria, spreading across the country to join the Sunni Arab uprising against the Kurdish and Shia led Iraqi government.

The Baghdad government closed the Syrian border at certain points on Sunday.
   
The US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Monday that Washington's "patience is running out with Syria".

Denial

Iraq's President Jalal Talabani, speaking at a press conference with President George Bush in Washington, said Iraq would not set a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops, backing away from published remarks saying the US could withdraw as many as 50,000 soldiers by the end of the year. 
  

Talabani (L) said US troops were 
still needed in Iraq 

In an interview with the Washington Post published on Tuesday, Talabani was quoted as saying up to 50,000 American troops could be withdrawn by the end of the year.
   
However he later distanced himself from the remarks, saying setting a timetable would be self-defeating.

"We will set no timetable for withdrawal. A timetable will help the terrorists, will encourage them that they could defeat a superpower of the world and Iraqi people," Talabani said during the press conference.

But he added: "We hope that by the end of 2006 our security forces are up to the level of taking responsibility from many American troops with complete agreement with the Americans."

The US has about 140,000 troops in Iraq and is training Iraqi forces to take over.

Bush has faced increasing calls to start bringing troops home.
   
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking to reporters in Berlin, repeated previous statements that US troop levels would be adjusted based only on the conditions on the ground in Iraq, not on a fixed timetable.