A series of bombings in this small but strategic northwestern Iraqi city is stoking fears of a return to sectarian conflict here and raising questions about a strategy of handing urban security to Iraqi police.
Since April, at least four major bombings have killed about 40 people and wounded nearly 150 on this city on the main route from Mosul to the east and the Syrian border 60 miles to the west. The deadliest was on Aug. 8, when a suicide bomber detonated a truck packed with explosives in a vegetable market in a Shiite district, killing at least 20 people, police said. U.S. officials blamed the attack on al-Qaida in Iraq.
The city's mayor, Najim Abdullah, fears that the removal of American troops from his city and the deployment of Iraqi army soldiers to nearby Mosul have left his overwhelmingly Turkoman community vulnerable.
"The goal was to start sectarian violence with the car bombs," he said. "There used to be a whole brigade here and now it's less. Soon, these policies will backfire in Tal Afar and allow terrorists to come in."
Those concerns have emerged even as insurgent attacks and sectarian bloodshed have ebbed over the past year throughout Iraq, and as the U.S. is considering a further reduction in the 145,000-member U.S. force following the July departure of the last of the troops sent here in 2007 to curb sectarian violence.
Some lack confidence in Iraqi police
Local officials fear extremists are taking advantage of the drawdown to strike back and lack confidence in the mostly Shiite Iraqi police.
"We used to depend mostly on coalition forces, but unfortunately the footprint of the U.S. has been reduced," Abdullah said, holding court outside his office in an Ottoman-era castle.
Control of this agricultural city of about 220,000, with brown mudbrick houses resting on a saddle between two low mountains, is critical to securing northern Iraq, where al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni extremist groups remain active.
Violence swept the town in 2004 and 2005, sending most of its residents fleeing to nearby villages.
In September 2005, however, 5,000 Iraqi troops backed by a 3,500-strong U.S. armored force drove insurgents from Tal Afar. President Bush cited the operation as an example that gave him "confidence in our strategy."
But the recent bombings have taken place at a time when U.S. commanders have cut the number of American troops patrolling Tal Afar down to a platoon, usually about 30 people. U.S. soldiers no longer man combat outposts in the city.
Iraq's government has also moved out a battalion of its own troops to secure Mosul, where Iraqi forces launched an operation last May to wrest control from al-Qaida.
The Tal Afar mayor complained that the government transferred experienced officers to Mosul without consulting civilian authorities here. Their replacements were unfamiliar with the city, he said.
Soldiers to be replaced with police
American strategy calls for removing U.S. and Iraqi soldiers from Iraq's cities once they have been secured and replacing them with Iraqi police — long considered the weakest of the security services.
"Frankly, we don't trust the (Iraqi police) one hundred percent," said an officer of the Iraqi army's 3rd Division, who gave his name only as Maj. Mowfaq. "When the (Aug. 8) bomb went off in Tal Afar, the police joined with the civilians to attack Sunnis. When we didn't join the fight, they called us terrorists."
The U.S. military task force that controls northern Iraq has about 24,000 troops responsible for a religiously and ethnically diverse region about the size of the state of Georgia.
Relying on Iraqi security forces — including the police — to secure an area long-term is key to the American strategy.
"As the Iraqi units stood up over the past 18 months, they took over our bases," said Maj. John Blankenhorn of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment "We confirmed that they could operate in company and battalion strength."
Blankenhorn believes the suicide bombings are a strategy of last resort by militants who have been severely weakened since the 2005 fighting. The focus now is on tamping down ethnic and sectarian hatred to prevent revenge attacks.
"Security forces want to focus on the true fight right now, but they are forced into a two-front war to stop reprisals in the population," he said.