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Tall Afar's long road back

On the road to stability, Iraqi city seen as a model in curbing violence continues to face daily challenges.
Capt. Mike Lingenfelter, 32, of Panhandle, Texas, stands atop a large granary in Tal Afar, Iraq, on Nov. 3.
Capt. Mike Lingenfelter, 32, of Panhandle, Texas, stands atop a large granary in Tal Afar, Iraq, on Nov. 3.Josh White / The Washington Post file
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A year ago, U.S. officials championed the military's success in pushing insurgents out of this city in Iraq's northwestern desert, reclaiming it for the roughly 250,000 residents and eliminating an insurgent safe haven. President Bush publicly praised the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's effort.

In the months since, soldiers say, Tall Afar has proved a model for the rest of Iraq, an insurgent stronghold turned relatively peaceful. Attacks dwindled to almost none in August before a spate of violence in September and October tied to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The local government is strong. Iraqi security forces are poised to take control from the roughly 1,000 U.S. troops in the region, which is a reduction of 75 percent from the U.S. presence here last spring.

"I think Tall Afar is on its way," said Lt. Col. Malcolm Frost, who commands the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, based just southwest of the city and now in charge of the region. "I think it's a beacon of light, not just for security but also in local government infrastructure. I think we're close to the tipping point."

But the road to stability in Tall Afar has been long and bumpy, and it continues to pose daily challenges. The city's transformation underscores how difficult it will be for parts of Iraq -- especially Baghdad -- to mirror its success.

Multiple problems
The unemployment rate here is nearly 70 percent. Officials estimate that fewer than half of Tall Afar's residents remained here or returned after the last big U.S.-Iraqi military operation in September 2005. Many of the city's buildings are vacant or were destroyed in the fighting last year. Hundreds of millions of dollars was promised to help rebuild and restore Tall Afar, but the money has just started to trickle in through the Iraqi central government's staggeringly slow bureaucracy. And Iraqi forces have only recently taken the lead in providing security, helped in large part by the population drop and lack of attacks.

Though sectarian violence has been stemmed by cooperation among Sunni and Shiite Muslim sheiks here, insurgents attack Shiite civilians in the southern part of Tall Afar and Iraqi forces in the north. Officials call it a delicate balance.

"Tall Afar was another Fallujah or Ramadi," said Mayor Najim al-Jibouri, referring to cities in western Iraq that have experienced heavy fighting between U.S. forces and insurgents. "But with the help of the people, everyone gained the momentum and claimed Tall Afar from the terrorists and vowed not to go back to the old, bad days. Still, there are a lot of shortcomings that really disappoint us. Things like that prolong the life of the insurgency."

The mayor points mainly to the lack of help from the Iraqi government, which has left parts of the city a shambles. The city's northwest quadrant is like a ghost town, with scores of vacant houses, some reduced to rubble by fighting more than a year ago, almost entirely cordoned off with Iraqi police checkpoints designed to choke the insurgents' ability to move.

Soldiers call the northwest neighborhood the city's "gated community" because Iraqi forces have put such a stranglehold on it. In addition to reducing attacks, the restrictions have kept some people from moving back in, officials said.

Capt. Luke Hale, the U.S. squadron's intelligence officer, said the security situation in Tall Afar is tied closely to the economy. For example, he said, attacks sometimes increase because insurgents are willing to pay a local resident to place a roadside bomb. The focus of violence is in the city's northwest, where troops have found significant weapons caches and safe houses and last week recovered 85 pounds of homemade explosives, sticks of TNT and other materials probably destined for more attacks, Hale said.

'Coming back'
During the past nine months, U.S. soldiers have logged an average of about one attack against them per day in Tall Afar, but nearly 45 percent have involved relatively harmless small-arms fire. Roadside bombs were planted at an average of six per month from February to August, with just two in July and none in August -- vastly fewer than what insurgents unleashed in previous years.

"It was very, very bad before," said Falah Hassan, 23, an Iraqi police sergeant who works with U.S. soldiers. He pointed excitedly to a wall-size map of the city he has lived in since birth. "Everyone was afraid to move around because of the insurgents. Now it's much, much better. Tall Afar is coming back."

However, insurgents have begun sabotaging homes with massive explosives to try to lure, trap and kill Iraqi forces who enter. The soldiers here call them "house-borne improvised explosive devices," and three such homes have been leveled in recent weeks, causing some Iraqi soldiers to hesitate when chasing insurgents into vacant buildings.

Still, the Iraqi forces are out front, while U.S. forces hang back more and more. At an old granary on the edge of town, American soldiers are working directly with their Iraqi counterparts to clean up the city and restore services.

"The Iraqi security forces are definitely on the offense, and the insurgents are definitely on the defense and reeling," said Capt. Mike Lingenfelter, 32, of Panhandle, Tex., whose Comanche Troop lives at the granary and patrols the city. "It's working. They're almost there."

On a recent patrol through several parts of the city, Lt. Joshua Murphy, 24, of Owensboro, Ky., highlighted the strong Iraqi police presence and noted that there had been several days of calm after Ramadan, when nine suicide bombers set off explosives.

"The less of a presence we have here, the better we're doing," Murphy said, glancing out his Humvee's window at an Iraqi checkpoint made of plywood and sandbags. "They're taking over."

Lack of support
At a security meeting last week, two dozen Iraqi police and army leaders met with the mayor and U.S. officials at a castle atop one of Tall Afar's highest points. The chief concern among the Iraqis was the lack of strength demonstrated by the country's criminal justice system. Officials said they had seen insurgents arrested here return to the streets after being released in Baghdad.

"At the end, after we catch the people, we see them on the road again, and it's very disappointing," said Col. Muhammad, who runs the Qadisiyah neighborhood police station. "These groups build again even when they are in the cells."

The Iraqi government's overall lack of ability to respond to the local success in Tall Afar is a significant concern, several officials said.

"We had high hopes the Iraqi government would be able to produce more visible, tangible results quicker," said Brig. Gen. Mick Bednarek, deputy commander for operations with Multinational Division -- North, based in Tikrit. "How long will a civilized people that are very much in need of basic fundamental services wait before they are frustrated and look somewhere else?"

Jibouri, the mayor, said: "You can't separate what happens in Tall Afar and what happens in the rest of Iraq. If Iraq recovers, Tall Afar will recover. If Iraq doesn't succeed, Tall Afar will again fall."