At last, President Bush had news he could use from Iraq. He devoted an entire speech in Cleveland last week to the story of how the town of Tall Afar was wrested from Qaeda control and has become a model for defeating the enemy. Praise came not just from the administration; CBS's "60 Minutes" ran a glowing segment on what had been accomplished under Col. H. R. McMaster and his Third Armored Cavalry. McMaster, author of a celebrated book, "Dereliction of Duty," a critical look at how the U.S. military and its leaders got it wrong in Vietnam, made the rounds of the airwaves about how they're now getting it right in Iraq. Tall Afar, said the president, "is today a free city that gives reason for hope for a free Iraq."
He showed off a letter to prove it. It was from the city's mayor to Gen. George Casey, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, calling American troops "our lion-hearted saviors." In Tall Afar last week, however, things weren't that clear-cut. U.S. troops were able to take a small group of American reporters on a foot patrol through several neighborhoods--rare these days in central and western Iraq, and unheard of in Baghdad. Iraqis along the way were full of praise for their liberators, many of whom they recognized by name. But just in case, two squads of heavily armed troops kept watch, front, rear and flanks, rifles at the ready, and wouldn't let the group linger more than a few minutes in any place; a helicopter gunship shadowed us overhead. In another part of town, police later reported that an insurgent mortar attack wounded six children. A second NEWSWEEK reporter, visiting Tall Afar independently, found other neighborhoods barricaded; Iraqi police warned that he might be killed by insurgents or their supporters if he went any farther.
President Bush extolled Tall Afar as proof of the success of America's new strategy, "Clear, Hold and Build." Tall Afar had been subdued before, in 2004. But after U.S. troops moved on, insurgents moved right back and made over the city in Al Qaeda's image, with Iraqi police barricaded in their station under constant attack. Even the mayor then was an insurgent sympathizer. McMaster brought in a large force, alongside a new Iraqi Army brigade, and after two weeks of fierce fighting in September 2005, retook the town. Al Qaeda even acknowledged the defeat, taking revenge by setting off six suicide car bombs in a day in Baghdad.
McMaster's Third Cav was replaced this year by a brigade of the First Armored Division. The new commander, Col. Sean MacFarland, is the first to admit Tall Afar is still a work in progress. "What's it look like to you--Stalingrad in 1944?" But he ticked off the reconstruction projects in the pipeline and the dramatic drop in insurgent activity--now only a couple of minor incidents every day or two, down from 10 a day only a month ago. "Clean it up, get the infrastructure back, and people will regain their confidence," he said. "It's not Camelot, but it's not Gotham either."
What it is, though, like so many places in Iraq now, is a city increasingly divided along sectarian lines. The neighborhoods we patrolled were largely Shia; those our reporter found barricaded and dangerous were mostly Sunni. "I'd say that zero percent of Bush's talk about Tall Afar is true," said Ahmed Sami, 45, a Sunni laborer. "They turned Shiite neighborhoods into havens, and Sunni neighborhoods into hells." Even in the Shia neighborhoods, people were far from satisfied. "This is all just an outdoor prison for us," said school teacher Abu Muhammed. "We can't even go as far as the market street up there." He gestured to the top of his road, where the Ottoman fortress that dominates the town is located (and which we couldn't visit due to a security scare, even though it holds the mayor's office). "We know the American Army and the Iraqi Army are working and doing their best," said Bakr Muhammed Bakr, a dressmaker whose shop, like most others on the streets, was open for business. "But what are they going to do, put a soldier in front of each Sunni house?"
To Sunnis, that's often what it seems like. "After the battle, resistance became very low, because the city was turned into a military camp," said a Sunni doctor at the Tall Afar General Hospital. In fact, at all times at least 3,000 Iraqi Army, police and U.S. soldiers are on duty inside the city, stationed at a welter of police stations and camps and on checkpoints. Most are Iraqis. They patrol by foot and vehicle constantly. Thousands more are at bases outside the city. Tall Afar's population is only 150,000. (As many as 100,000 people, mostly Sunni, fled during last year's fighting and most have not returned.) That's at least one armed man for every 50 residents, more if reinforcements are used. "That's a pretty high ratio," acknowledged MacFarland, "which is why the enemy is having a hard time. It would be pretty hard to replicate that in a city like Baghdad or Mosul."
The rise of sectarian feelings, after the terrorist bombing of the Shia shrine in Samarra, has complicated matters in Tall Afar as well--though protests there remained peaceful, and there were no reprisal attacks on Sunni mosques, as elsewhere in Iraq. The president's speech suggested Tall Afar was on the verge of being handed back to the Iraqis, but no one on the ground now expects that to happen soon. "There will be American troops in and around Tall Afar at least for the better part of the coming year," said Col. MacFarland. That's good news to Mayor Najim Abdullah al Jubori, who said he was so proud to hear President Bush mention him and his letter that "I could have flown without wings." But to be honest, he went on to explain, the point of his letter was actually a plea to Casey to keep American troops here even longer--not proof of a strategy that will, sooner or later, allow Americans to pull out.