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U.S. targeting insurgents in northern Iraq

Dozens dead in fighting at terrorist 'haven'

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S.-led multinational troops and Iraqi security forces launched an operation Thursday to oust "anti-Iraqi" fighters who have overrun the northern Iraqi city of Tall 'Afar, the U.S. military said.

The U.S. military has identified Tall 'Afar -- 30 miles west of Mosul -- as "a suspected haven for terrorists crossing into Iraq from Syria."

The fighting left 45 people dead -- 22 of whom were believed to have been gunmen, hospital officials said. Dr. Rabi Yassin, director general of Mosul's health department, said many of the other victims were children.

At least 70 other people were injured, some of them children, Yassin said.

"Tall 'Afar hospital could not handle that number of wounded, so we sent ambulances from other hospitals in Mosul," Yassin said.

Yassin said "the new Iraqi army banned ambulances that were carrying medical aid from entering Tall 'Afar, although the hospital was really in need of that stuff."

A U.S. military statement said American and Iraqi forces "are allowing ambulances to enter in and out of Tall 'Afar after being searched. This precaution is necessary because terrorists in Tall 'Afar have used ambulances to move about the city."

Six people have been detained, all suspected of "anti-Iraqi" activities, the military said. U.S. and Iraqi forces have also confiscated various weapons and munitions.

Repeated attacks

"The operation comes after [multinational] and Iraqi security forces were repeatedly attacked by a large terrorist element that has displaced local Iraqi security forces throughout the recent weeks," according to the coalition press office.

"Numerous attacks in the past two weeks not only targeted [multinational] and Iraqi security forces, but civilians as well. These attacks by terrorist groups included rocket-propelled grenades, small-arms fire, mortars and roadside bombs, and resulted in civilian casualties."

Multinational forces also launched "a coordinated and precise maneuver to secure the highway surrounding the city," the military said.

"This main road has been the site of numerous attacks on multinational forces and Iraqi security forces by rocket propelled grenades, mortars and roadside bombs."

Insurgents at the Al Huda Mosque and other city buildings attacked the forces securing the highway, the U.S. military said, noting that "the use of protected holy sites to conduct these kinds of attacks violates the law of war."

Soldiers returned fire toward the insurgents.

"While hundreds of the city's citizens have fled in the last several days, many of those remaining left today in the face of the terrorist attacks," the military said.

Lt. Col. Paul Hastings, a spokesman with Task Force Olympia, said the number of anti-Iraqi forces in the city is estimated at between 250 and 300.

On Saturday, a military helicopter went down during heavy fighting in Tall 'Afar. Insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades at a Stryker armored vehicle securing the site, disabling the vehicle.

The military said the Nineveh provincial Gov. Duraid Kashmoula "has been working with sheikhs and local leaders in the area to bring about peace and stability to the city.

"However, attempts at a peaceful solution have failed, resulting in the courageous decision by local Iraqi leaders to initiate operations to free Tall 'Afar of the terrorists and to restore order."

Kashmoula's son, Laith Duraid Kashmoula, was assassinated Tuesday.

Police said the son was driving to work when assailants pulled up next to his car and opened fire with small arms. He was an employee in the Iraqi government's anti-corruption office in Mosul, the largest city in the northern Iraqi province.

The governor's cousin and the previous governor of Nineveh province, Usama Kashmoula, was shot dead in an ambush two months ago.

Other developments:

  • U.S. warplanes targeted what officials called a position "occupied by numerous foreign fighters" in northern Falluja. A U.S. official said that an unknown number of civilians were killed. The strike was believed to be part of a bombing run on a building believed occupied by members of the suspected Abu Musab al-Zarqawi terror network. The Iraqi Ministry of Health said 10 people -- three men, three women and four children -- died and 15 were wounded. A U.S. official has expressed regret over the civilian casualties.
  • A soldier with the U.S. 1st Infantry Division was killed and seven soldiers wounded Wednesday night in a vehicle accident near Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, the U.S. military said Thursday. The death brought the number of American troops killed in the war to 1,006 -- 760 in hostile action, 246 in nonhostile incidents.
  • U.S. and Iraqi forces were working Thursday to re-establish control of Samarra, a restive Sunni Muslim town north of Baghdad. Like Falluja, Samarra has been a problematic, dangerous area for the interim Iraqi government and U.S. forces, who have been besieged by insurgents. The combined forces entered the town and started to reseat the City Council leadership and assess police stations, a military statement said. U.S. and Iraqi forces plan to man joint traffic control points and open the Samarra Bridge to reduced civilian traffic.
  • The interim government continued work on preparations for January elections for a transitional national assembly. Deputy Iraqi Prime Minister Barham Salih met Thursday with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Williams Burns and Assistant Defense Secretary Peter Woodman. The officials discussed the upcoming elections and the need to speed up U.S. reconstruction money, the prime minister's office said.

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