The battle of Tal Afar intensifies. Operation Restoring Rights is easily the largest since Fallujah, based on both the size of the assault force – five to six battalions, about 5,000 U.S. and Iraqi infantry – and the scope of the objective. Tal Afar is a city of over 150,000, ranking it just behind Fallujah in size. In the past three days of fighting, over 200 insurgents have been killed, with minor casualties to the coalition forces (two American and four Iraqi troops lightly wounded). The terrorist casualty count easily outstrips that encountered during the fighting last May in Operation Matador.
Yet Tal Afar is unlike Fallujah, according to Khasro Goran, the deputy governor of Nineveh province; “The whole city is not under the control of the insurgents, its only some pockets.” The estimate is that by the time of the current offensive, the Coalition reduce the insurgent presence to less than fifty percent.
A partial Coalition presence allows for some degree of local intelligence. The operation in Tal Afar has been well planned in advance. The preparation includes:
· Berms were constructed to ring the city starting in July.
· Checkpoints on roadways leading to Tal Afar were established weeks prior.
· Two battalions of Iraqi troops from the 3rd Division were moved to the region at the end of August, some by airlift.
· Concertina wire (razor wire, the modern day equivalent of barbed wire) and other obstacles have been assembled around insurgent dominated Sarai neighborhood.
· A camp was established to screen citizens and identify insurgents.
There is a clear purpose. The offensive is not designed to merely clear the city of insurgents, but also to defeat them. Col. H.R. McMaster, commander of the Army’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, is explicit about the desire to surround the insurgents and force them to fight and not flee; “The idea is to trap them in Sarai or force them toward our checkpoints to the south. We don’t want them to slip out.”
As seen elsewhere throughout Iraq, the terrorists continue to use mosques at fighting positions. The high number of dead insurgent indicates the initial cordon was successful, although it is possible the enemy chose to stand ground and fight. The difficult parts of the operation will be conducting the urban assault, particularly on the Sarai district as it appears to be the insurgent’s holdout, and maintaining a tight cordon around the city to prevent the enemy from escaping. (Note: the BBC has a decent primer presentation on urban warfare).
The intriguing question will not answered after the battle ends. Will the Coalition remain in Tal Afar in force? If the occupation of Hit, Ramadi and Fallujah are any indicators, the answer will be yes. This will tell us if progress is being made with Iraq’s Army, and if future operations will be conducted with the same goals: to kill or capture the enemy in town and to deny them the opportunity to reestablish a base of operations.