Battle along the Northern Ratline
U.S. and Iraqi forces have launched the largest operation since Fallujah last November. Over 5,000 U.S. and Iraq troops strike at the town of Tal Afar, which is located west of Mosul, along the northern ratline from Syria. The insurgents have taken heavy casualties, and U.S. Army helicopter pilots are learning to spot IED deployments via air, and react accordingly.
During the course of the day, at least 30 insurgents were killed as U.S. troops conducted house-to-house searches in the baking sun. Apache attack helicopters that circled the city of 250,000 all day killed 27 people, including eight who were attempting to conceal roadside bombs in old tires, commanders said. No American or Iraqi army casualties were reported.
While the composition of the force is unclear, it appears at least two Iraqi Army battalions are in the fight. They were airlifted by Iraqi Air Force C-130 transports several days ago (see the one sentence blurb at the end of this AP report). The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment is also engaged in Tal Afar. There are likely five to six battalions participating (Iraqi battalions are about 600 to 800 men strong).
As the Washington Post points out, Tal Afar is a contested town, and has been the subject of repeated cordon and search operations. The effort to fully secure the town has not yet been made. While this is pure speculation, the size of the assault team and the inclusion of Iraqi Army units indicates a significant force ( a battalion or greater - about 1,000 men) may remain to secure the city. If true, this might indicate a transition from the harassing operations to clear and hold operations, a crucial step to securing the peace and defeating the insurgency.
Whether or not Coalition troops remain in force in Tal Afar, the Coalition still maintains the initiative in western and northern Iraq (see The Anbar Campaign for a list of successive operations). As the Anbar Campaign has shown, insurgent IEDs or suicide attacks cannot prevent the U.S. military from operating at the time and place of their choosing.
Iraqi Army units are now entering the fight with significant formations capable of independent operations. During the operations along the Euphrates, typically an Iraqi Army company was embedded within a Marine battalion. In Tal Afar, two Iraqi battalions have been deployed, using their own airlift. The times are changing, and al Qaeda and the insurgents' comfort zone is slowly shrinking.