Saadoun al-Dulaimi, the Iraqi defence minister, on Saturday said five members of the Iraqi security forces were also killed and three others wounded.

 

US and Iraqi troops swept into Tal Afar early on Saturday, conducting house-to-house searches and battering down walls with armoured vehicles in an effort to clean the city of fighters.

 

Al-Dulaimi predicted the operation would end in three days but said military operations will be launched in the cities of Ramadi, Qaem, Rawa and Samara.

 

Sealing Syrian border

 

Also on Saturday, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari sealed the northern border crossing into Syria and imposed a dusk to dawn curfew in the region around the Rabiaa frontier post.
 
The order by al-Jaafari was read on Iraqi television by Interior Minister Bayan Jabr.

 

The decree closed the border to all transportation, including the railroad, except for vehicles with special permission from the Interior Ministry.

 

Iraq and the United States have both complained bitterly that Syria has not done too little to block the flow of so-call foreign fighters into Iraq across the long and porous border.

Major battle

In Tal Afar, US-led forces initially faced several hundred lightly armed fighters 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 headquarters of the fighters.

"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.

Boys take a break on Friday at a
refugee camp near Tal Afar

Al-Jaafari issued a statement announcing the start of the offensive.

"At 2am today, acting on my orders, Iraqi forces commenced an operation to remove all remaining terrorist elements from the city of Tel Afar. These forces are operating with support from the multinational force," he said.

Residents flee

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.

On Friday, the government issued a statement hinting the operation was imminent, and the US military reported killing 11 fighters during raids over the past two days.

"The terrorist elements being targeted by this operation are guilty of blatant crimes against its people," al-Jaafari's statement said. "They want to deny the citizens of Tal Afar their future in a democratic and peaceful Iraq. We want to guarantee those rights. These operations are being conducted precisely for that purpose."

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 Saddam Hussein by a US-backed Shia Muslim city government and police force.

State-sponsored terrorism

The Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) in Iraq slammed the military offensive in Tal Afar on Saturday, saying it was as an expression of innate sectarian hatred that rulers should refrain from.

The comment was part of a statement received by Aljazeera in which the AMS had called for ending "state-sponsored-terrorism". 

Airport reopens

In the capital, Baghdad International Airport - the country's only reliable and relatively safe link to the outside world - reopened early on Saturday after a day's closure in a payment dispute between the government and a British security company.

London-based Global Strategies Group said it had agreed to return to work after the government promised to pay 50% of what the company said it was owed.

Acting Transportation Minister Esmat Amer confirmed that the airport reopened after negotiations overnight between the government and the British company.

Iraqi police prepared Friday to take
over security at Baghdad's airport

"We have reached agreement with the Global security firm, and the airport is open now for domestic and international flights," Amer said.

Company spokesman Giles Morgan told The Associated Press from London that Global had agreed to return to work after the government promised to pay 50% of what was owed.

Morgan said the company and the government were continuing talks on a future contract.

Amer confirmed the 50% agreement and said, "No one can blackmail us in this matter, our forces ... are ready any time to take over the airport."

The company had provided security at the sprawling facility 20km from central Baghdad since last year. On Friday, Global suspended operations claiming the Ministry of Transportation was seven months behind in payments.

Under a deal negotiated with the defunct US-led Coalition Provisional Authority, Global was to be paid $4.5 million a month for airport security.

Violence elsewhere

Iraq police said two mortar shells were fired into the Green Zone that houses the US embassy, the Iraqi parliament and government offices. There was no word on casualties or damage.

A burned police car is abandoned
after clashes on Friday in Baghdad

Five people were killed when a roadside bomb exploded next to a police convoy in the south of Baghdad. Two paramilitary police officers and 3 civilians in a nearby vehicle died in the blast. Seven officers were wounded, hospital officials said.

Iraqi medical sources told Aljazeera that three police officers were killed and five others wounded by armed men in two attacks on two patrols in the centre of Falluja.

In Baquba, four Iraqi workers were killed and four others wounded when gunmen opened fire at the bus transporting them to one of the US camps in the area, according to Iraqi sources.

In Latifiya, south of Baghdad, police found the bodies of 19 people shot to death.

In al-Mashrou township, south of Baghdad, four Iraqis were killed and 11 others wounded in a car bomb blast outside the city's police station.

In Mahaweel, a car exploded when approached by a police officer, killing a police officer two people suspected of belonging to armed groups.

Relations with Israel

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said that all US troops could depart Iraq in two years, with the exception of a limited number of its military bases.

President Jalal Talabani welcomed
Israeli investment

The London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper on Saturday reported Talabani's statements to Israeli journalists in which he said Iraq would establish full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state after it accepts the Saudi initiative proposed by King Abdullah at the Arab Summit in Beirut.

Talabani said Iraq harbours no hostility towards Israel.

"The Iraqis do not want to be more Palestinians than the Palestinians themselves," Talabani said, noting that his country is open to Israeli business.

He welcomed any initiative from the Israeli businessmen to open trade with Iraq and offered an invitation to invest in Iraq.