WASHINGTON, March 31, 2007 - The general in charge of coalition military efforts in Iraq yesterday condemned "barbaric actions" by al Qaeda elements in the wake of bombings in the northern city of Tal Afar that killed dozens of Iraqi civilians and injured scores of others.

In a written statement issued by Multi-National Force - Iraq (MNF-I), Gen. David H. Petraeus said the attacks are designed to divide the Iraqi people and draw attention away from the improving security situation in Iraq's capital.

"Al Qaeda in Iraq elements once again displayed their total disregard for human life, carrying out barbaric actions against innocent Iraqi citizens in an effort to reignite sectarian violence and to undermine recent Iraqi and coalition successes in improving security in Baghdad," Petraeus said in the statement.

"These horrific attacks demonstrated al Qaeda's complete rejection of respect for life itself, and the coalition joins Iraqi leaders in condemning these latest acts of cold-blooded murder," he said.

Today's statement is the second strong official reaction to the attack on a crowded marketplace from the top coalition command in Iraq. The day after the attack, MNF-I released a statement that wasn't attributed to a specific official.

The March 28 statement called the attack a "cowardly and inhumane" and "another example of attempts by extremists to reignite violence between people who have lived in peace despite being from different sectarian and ethnic groups."

The statement called on Iraqi leaders and citizens to remain united, to reject violence, and to bring to justice those responsible for the Tal Afar attack.

A coalition military leader in northern Iraq also spoke out on March 28.

"This was an act of cowardice and only demonstrates to the world how desperate this enemy is," said Army Brig. Gen. Mick Bednarek, deputy commander of Task Force Lighting and Multinational Division North. "The Iraqi people must stand united against these forces so the country can continue on its path to a free and democratic state."

Iraqi Police Foil Attack

On March 23, Iraqi police foiled an attack in Ramadi that could have caused catastrophic casualties. The police intercepted a truck carrying 5,000 gallons of chlorine and two tons of explosives, according to Army Maj. Gen. Michael D. Barbero, Joint Staff deputy director for operations.

On March 28, two chlorine-laden trucks exploded outside the Fallujah military operations center. The attack injured 14 U.S. troops and 57 Iraqis.

"I strongly believe that this use of chlorine should not be dismissed simply as a new tactic or an emerging trend," Barbero said. "Chlorine is a poison gas being used on the Iraqi people. Before these attacks, the last time poison gas was used on the Iraqi people was by Saddam Hussein."

Al Qaeda in Iraq and related Sunni extremists are using this weapon against the Sunni population of Anbar province. "We have Sunni extremists attacking innocent Sunnis with a poison gas," Barbero said.

Coalition officials see the escalation as a response to the Iraqi people's growing sentiment against the terror organization. Al Qaeda is trying to intimidate the people of the province, Barbero said.

Its actions show that al Qaeda in Iraq is not an "honorable resistance" aimed at "driving out the infidels," the general said.

The terrorists continue to use children to launch attacks. On March 28, Iraqi police went after a suspicious vehicle in Haditha. "As they drove past a 12-to14-year-old boy riding a bicycle, a bomb in the boy's backpack detonated, killing him instantly," Barbero said.

"These acts - the use of poison gas and the use of children as weapons - are unacceptable in any civilized society and demonstrate the truly dishonorable nature of this enemy," he said.

Iraqis, Coalition Working Together to Secure Tal Afar

Coalition and Iraqi forces are working with city leaders to secure the Iraqi city of Tal Afar after a bombing at a market killed more than 80 people earlier this week, a military official said today in a briefing from the city.

"It's been a tremendously busy four days, tremendously stressful four days," Lt. Col. Malcom Frost, commander of 3rd Squadron, 4th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, told journalists from Forward Operating Base Sykes in Tal Afar. "But ... the city is now secure and going back to its normal routines."

The question of possible involvement by Iraqi security forces, police or army has come up since the March 27 attack. Frost dismissed the notion that Iraqi forces had anything to do with the incident.

"As we investigate this, there's no indication that this was an inside job or that the Iraqi police or army or security forces supported this incident from the inside so to speak," he said. "As much as we want war to be, it is not a zero-defect exercise, and unfortunately the enemy sometimes finds a seam. This is the case in this incident."

Extra measures are in place to prevent another such incident, he added. Checkpoints are being reinforced and joint checkpoints are being increased, as are patrols.

Frost said coalition an Iraqi security forces are working to ensure that the attack doesn't overshadow the good works done during the past 15 months. Schools and medical clinics have been built, infrastructure and the general economic situation of the residents of Tal Afar have been improved.

"I want to emphasize that this tragic event is absolutely not indicative of the thousands of good things that have happened over the last 15 months in the city of Tal Afar," Frost said.

In addition to working with the Iraqis to help secure the city, he added that coalition forces are conducting successful humanitarian assistance missions to provide food, medical supplies and shelter to the victims of the March 27 blast.

Frost describes the market bombing as the insurgents' "Hail Mary" attempt to regain a foothold in the city, incite sectarian violence, and undermine the credibility of the Iraqi police and the local government. It fell short, he said.

Instead of driving the city into continued sectarian violence, it has had the opposite effect, he said, as the city's residents have come together.

"Sometimes you must take half a step back to take two steps forward," he said. "I'm confident that the city that has already come together will take those steps forward and continue to progress toward a more secure and stable area here in Tal Afar."