TAL AFAR, Iraq - A joint U.S.-Iraqi force punched deep into Tal Afar, a key insurgent staging ground near the Syrian border, and the Iraqi army said Thursday it arrested 200 suspected militants in the sweep - three-quarters of them foreign fighters.
Most of the estimated civilian population of 200,000 have now fled this predominantly Turkmen city, where 70 percent of that ethnic group is Sunni Muslim - the sect that dominates the Iraqi insurgency. The U.S. military reported killing seven insurgents over the past two days amid growing indications the joint force was preparing to intensify the operation.
Iraqi army Capt. Mohammed Ahmed said one of the captured insurgents was Amr Omayer, an Iraqi who allegedly was the most-wanted militant in the city and the commander of all insurgent operations launched from there.
The joint force has reported heavy fighting around the perimeter of the city for several days and deadly bombings that mainly have killed civilians. Iraqi authorities said 80 percent of the civilian population has fled the city, about 260 miles north of Baghdad and 35 miles from Syria.
Eight civilians were killed in the city Wednesday by a suicide car bomber at an Iraqi checkpoint, he said.
In other developments:
Police reported finding 17 bullet-ridden bodies near the capital. Fifteen were spotted close to Mahmoudiya, a heavily Sunni farming town about 20 miles south of Baghdad. Two more bodies, blindfolded and handcuffed, were found on Baghdad's southern outskirts near a sewage treatment plant. The victims were not identified.
The American military announced the death Wednesday of a soldier assigned to the 2nd Force Service Support Group in an industrial accident at Camp Taqaddum near Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad.
Unsure of pilot's fate in Gulf War, Navy keeps him listed as missing
WASHINGTON - The Navy has been unable to determine whether Capt. Michael "Scott" Speicher, the fighter pilot shot down over Iraq in January 1991, is dead or alive, but it decided to keep his official status "missing/captured" and intensify investigative efforts.
Navy Secretary Gordon England on Wednesday approved the findings and recommendations of a Navy board of inquiry, which concluded that "elements of the former Iraqi regime know the whereabouts of Captain Speicher."
The board's report, which was made public Thursday, said this conclusion was based on the fact that some years after Speicher's F/A-18 fighter was shot down over the Iraqi desert on the opening night of the Gulf War, the former Iraqi government turned over items from the aircraft and a flight suit. The report did not say who in the former regime of Saddam Hussein is believed to have knowledge about what happened to the pilot.
The Iraqi government maintained from the start that Speicher perished at the crash site. No evidence to contradict that has surfaced since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, but the new Navy inquiry concluded there was no credible evidence of his death, either.
Powell says his U.N. speech remains a "blot' on his record
WASHINGTON - Former Secretary of State Colin Powell told ABC-News Thursday that his prewar speech to the United Nations accusing Iraq of harboring weapons of mass destruction was a "blot" on his record.
Powell said he had relied on information he received at CIA briefings. He said Thursday that then-director George Tenet "believed what he was giving to me was accurate." But, Powell said, "the intelligence system did not work well."
Lawyer says Saddam Hussein has not confessed to ordering deaths
AMMAN, Jordan - Saddam Hussein's lawyer denied Thursday that the former president has confessed to ordering the deaths of more than 180,000 Kurds in the late 1980s. Khalil Dulaimi was responding to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's remarks Tuesday that Hussein had admitted he ordered the killing of the Kurds in northern Iraq.