Pity the city that becomes a symbol of US success in Iraq. Last year, Tal Afar in the north-east of the country was being lauded in Washington as the one place where the US had brought peace. Perhaps the same prescription might work elsewhere in Iraq.
Embedded American journalists scurried to this poor and depressing Turkoman city between Mosul and the Syrian border to report on the good news. President Bush even singled it out for optimistic comment in March 2006. “Tal Afar shows that, when Iraqis can count on a basic level of safety and security, they can live together peacefully,” he said. “The people of Tal Afar have shown why spreading liberty and democracy is at the heart of our strategy to defeat the terrorists.”
It was always a myth. On March 27, a gigantic truck bomb exploded in a Shia market area in Tal Afar. It was the deadliest single bomb out of the many that have been detonated by Sunni insurgents. The Interior Ministry said that 152 people were killed and 347 wounded in the explosion.
Hours after the blast, as I reported here the following day, an event occurred that the Iraqi government had been dreading. The police, all Shia, possibly including some who had lost relatives in the explosion, went on a pogrom. They picked up Sunni men and boys in the streets and in their houses, and then killed them with single shots to the head. As many as 70 may have been executed.
Troops from the Iraqi Army 3rd Division were rushed to the town. They were followed by members of Mosul police force who were overwhelmingly Sunni Arab. Some 18 members of the Tal Afar police were arrested and then released.
It was always absurd to treat Tal Afar as a possible textbook case of how the US might successfully expedite a counter-insurgency policy. It is a very peculiar city, the only city in Iraq that is almost entirely Turkoman. They in turn are divided between a Sunni Turkoman majority and a large Shia Turkoman minority.
Under Saddam Hussein the Sunni had the upper hand. In a poor place with few jobs they monopolised posts in the army and security forces. After the fall of Saddam they swiftly joined the insurgency. The insurgents gained control in 2005 only to be routed by American and local Iraqi government forces.
But Tal Afar has another peculiarity. A grim-looking place, it has some strategic importance because it is situated on the dividing line between Arab and Kurdish Iraq. The Kurds are eager to control the road passing through Tal Afar because it leads to Sinjar and is a link to the Kurds across the border in Syria.
The American hero of the supposedly successful campaign of 2005 was Colonel H R McMaster, the commander of the 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment. Accounts of his triumph tell once more about the preoccupations of US journalists than it does about Tal Afar and its environs.
Col McMaster was quoted as saying: “You gotta come in with your ears open. You can’t come in and start talking. You have to really listen to people.”
Sadly, these deep insights were not enough to prevent fresh explosions of sectarian violence.
In Tal Afar and northern Iraq as a whole, the Iraqi army divisions are mostly, though not entirely, Kurdish. The Kurds are the one community in Iraq that support the occupation. The Shia Turkomans in Tal Afar are also supportive of the government in Baghdad. In the rest of Iraq, the fatal weakness of the US forces is that they have no reliable local allies.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.