Iraqi PM visited Tal Afar notwithstanding terrorist threats

Iraq's prime minister toured the ancient northern city of Tal Afar on Monday - ignoring an alleged al-Qaida threat to strike with chemical weapons - to congratulate Iraqi forces for rousting militants from their stronghold near Syria, Iraqi television reported.

Al-Iraqiya television, which showed no pictures, said Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari was in the region despite an insurgent threat to unleash chemical and biological weapons against the force of 5,000 Iraqi soldiers and commandos, backed by 3,500 troops from the U.S. 3rd Armored Cavalry regiment, who stormed into the city Saturday, according to Guardian.

The offensive "was a great shock to al-Qaida. They were thrown off balance and issued this threat. We will be on the lookout," Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said at a news conference.

Militant positions were found mainly deserted Sunday, and the invading force discovered a network of tunnels below the city through which the insurgents were believed to have fled to the surrounding countryside.

Brig. Gen. Abdul Aziz Mohammed-Jassim, spokesman for the Iraqi army in Tal Afar, said the final insurgent death toll was 157, with 291 suspected militants captured. He said one Iraqi soldier was killed Monday, bringing the army death toll to at least six for the entire operation. Six civilians died, he said.

The U.S. military reported a similar number of insurgent deaths, 141, a day earlier. No U.S. soldiers were killed, it said.

Al-Iraqiya reported that al-Jaafari was in Tal Afar in defiance of "a terrorist threat to attack the city with chemical and biological weapons."

There was no known public threat from the insurgents to use unconventional weapons in the area, but they have issued two Web postings since Friday, vowing to use chemical weapons against U.S. and Iraqi government interests in Baghdad. The threats mentioned the Green Zone that houses the U.S. Embassy, Iraq's parliament and government offices, the AP reports.

Also, Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, posted audio Sunday on the Internet accusing U.S. and Iraqi forces of using poison gas in the Tal Afar offensive. The authenticity of the tape could not be independently verified, but the voice was similar to other postings attributed to the Jordanian-born militant.

Pn photo: Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi.

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