The accusations by Colonel H.R. McMaster, commander of the 3rd
Armoured Cavalry Regiment, included some of the most graphic and specific charges by a US military officer during the ongoing battle for control of Tal Afar, a city about 80 kilometres from the Syrian border that has been an insurgent stronghold.

“The enemy here did just the most horrible things you can imagine, in one case murdering a child, placing a booby trap within the child’s body and waiting for the parent to come recover the body of their child and exploding it to kill the parents; beheadings and so forth,” Colonel McMaster said in an interview from Tal Afar with reporters at the Pentagon.

“Not only were they targeting civilians, brutally murdering them, torturing them, but they were also kidnapping the youth of the city and brainwashing them and trying to turn them into hate-filled murderers,” he said.

Colonel McMaster said Tal Afar is not yet under the control of the 5,000 Iraqi government forces and 3,500 to 3,800 US troops that have been fighting together there for the past two weeks. He predicted eventual victory but said it was impossible to know how long it would take before the Iraqis can control Tal Afar by themselves.

Meanwhile Iraq’s President Jala Talabani said during a press conference in Washington that Iraq hopes to be able to replace some US troops deployed there by the end of next year.

Mr Talabani’s comments followed talks at the White House with US President George W. Bush.

“We hope that by the end of 2006, our security forces are up to the level of taking responsibility from many American troops, with complete agreement with Americans,” President Jalal Talabani told a press conference.

Mr Talabani’s comments were at odds with an interview in the Washington Post in which he said that up to 50,000 US troops could be withdrawn this year.

However the Iraqi leader insisted at the press conference there could be no fixed timetable.

“We don’t want to give any signal to the terrorists that our will to defeat them is weakened or they can defeat us,” he said.

Mr Bush appeared to endorse Talabani’s comments. “President Talabani and I discussed our strategy for the months ahead,” said Mr Bush, who warmly welcomed Mr Talabani to the White House as “the first democratically president of Iraq.”

For the time being, Mr Bush said, “American troops will stay on the offensive alongside Iraqi security forces, to hunt down our common enemies.”

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