The last time Tal Afar fell to insurgents in the midst of the Iraq war, Mayor Najim Abed al-Jabouri was directing his troops from a 16th-century Ottoman castle in the center of his city. This time, he’s stuck in a suburb about an hour south of Washington as he punches the code from a $2 phone card into his cellphone, takes a drag on his cigarette and waits for the latest update from the battlefield.
“Hallooo,” calls a faint voice from Iraq, one of Najim’s former lieutenants.
“Where are they fighting?” Najim asks in Arabic, quickly before the line goes dead. “Where are they now?”
Here, tucked away in Woodbridge, Va., is one more legacy of America’s long and suddenly resurgent war in Iraq, where on Wednesday the country’s embattled prime minister rejected demands for an emergency national unity government and Sunni Muslim militants advanced on a major hydroelectric power plant.
Meanwhile, from the front porch of his home, an aluminum-sided split-level with a rosebush that reminds him of Iraq, Najim spends his days working the phones, trying the best he can to keep one city together in a country that is under increasing siege.
During some of Iraq’s darkest days, the former mayor and his city were held up by American generals and President George W. Bush as proof that the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy could work; that despite the sectarian bloodletting a peaceful Iraq was still possible. “We are proud to have allies like Mayor Najim on our side in the fight for freedom,” Bush said in a speech that focused on progress in Tal Afar.
That was in 2006, before al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents blew up Najim’s house; before Najim’s own government accused him of being a Baathist; before an American general flew up to Tal Afar from Baghdad and told Najim it was time to take his family and flee the country.
Najim protested that he wasn’t ready to go. “We may not have this opportunity in the future,” he recalls the general saying.
So here he is now, the war that was supposed to be over flared up again, cellphone in hand, the numbers of Tal Afar’s tribal sheiks scribbled on a scrap of notebook paper that he keeps in his wallet. He tries to talk to them at least once a day. He asks if they are safe and urges them — Sunni and Shia — not to turn on each other as they did the last time insurgents took over the city.
Amid all the bad news of the last few weeks, Najim says he’s found some glimmers of hope. As fighters affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) closed in on Tal Afar, the city’s Shiite sheiks told Najim that some of the Sunni leaders had helped them escape. Even though ISIS fighters control most of Tal Afar, Najim’s former officers were reporting that a few dozen tribal and government troops were still holding the ancient castle in the center of the city.
On this day, Najim’s former lieutenant tells him that a brigade of Iraqi commandos, recently arrived from Baghdad, was battling to regain control of Tal Afar’s airfield. Someone had launched two airstrikes on ISIS strongholds in the city.
“Did they come from helicopters?” Najim asks.
“No, planes,” his lieutenant replies. “The planes without pilots.”
“From where?” Najim asks skeptically, knowing American drones aren’t in the fight.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” the lieutenant says.
Nearby, Najim’s daughter, a junior at George Mason University, checks Facebook on her cellphone and texts an Iraqi friend whose family recently fled to Serbia. Najim’s eldest son attends Northern Virginia Community College. His youngest recently joined the U.S. Army and is stationed on the West Coast.
An American flag, the only one on his street, catches a faint summer breeze on Najim’s front porch. He loves the United States, he says, even though he blames the U.S. government for wrecking his country. “They gave my home the worst leaders in the world,” he says. “They destroyed the community.”
And yet he believes the United States is the only country that can fix Iraq by forcing feuding Sunni and Shiite leaders in Baghdad to form a unity government that would undermine support for the ISIS insurgency. “The terrorists are not strong,” says Najim, a secular Sunni. “The price to save Iraq is very cheap. It’s just talking.”
Najim dials several of Tal Afar’s tribal sheiks, but the calls won’t go through. Sometimes a recording in English tells him that the number he’s dialing isn’t currently working. Other times the recorded voice is Arabic. “The communications in Iraq are very bad right now,” he says. Sometimes the government will cut the phone lines in the city and the surrounding area to prevent the insurgents from communicating with each other, he says.
Eventually he reaches one of his former bodyguards in Tal Afar and peppers him with questions about the latest developments in the city. Sheik Wali fled to his tribal village near the Syrian border, the bodyguard says. Sheik Abdullah escaped to Kurdistan. Sheik Razzak is with Iraqi troops at the airfield west of the city, where there is still heavy fighting.
“Tell Razzak to call me,” Najim says.
He asks if Iraqi forces are still holding the castle. Set atop a large hill in the center of the city and fortified with massive stone ramparts, the castle is the most easily defended terrain in Tal Afar. In 2005, when al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters overran the city, Najim says he held it with his small police force and some heavy machine guns. “I swear the bullets didn’t stop for one minute,” he says. “The shooting was by sniper and machine guns. The sky was raining mortars.”
American and Iraqi troops ferried him fresh supplies and eventually set up a command post next to his office. Once the fighting in the city stopped, U.S. forces helped him rebuild city hall inside the castle complex. “This was Tal Afar’s golden era,” he says. By 2007 he was inviting U.S. generals to walk the city’s streets without body armor. “We built a strong foundation,” he says.
Now his former bodyguard is telling him over the phone that the police and tribal forces fled the castle a day earlier and that the insurgent fighters had ransacked his old office. “This was a big mistake,” he says gruffly, as if barking an order. He had spent almost 30 years as an Iraqi army officer prior to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, surviving the war with Iran and two U.S.-led invasions.
“If you had stayed in the castle, the terrorists couldn’t take it,” he tells his bodyguard. “This is a mistake to just give them the whole city.” He rubs his face with his free hand and sighs. There’s silence on the other end of the line. Najim’s voice softens.
“Okay, it has happened,” he says. “What can we do?”
The question hangs in the air as Najim’s wife clears the lunch plates of rice, chicken and Iraqi tea flavored with anise and heaping spoonfuls of sugar. He says goodbye to his bodyguard and walks outside to smoke another cigarette. It’s late afternoon in Washington and close to 2 a.m. in Iraq — too late to make any more calls. “I am very sad,” he says. “But the relationships we built in Tal Afar have stayed strong.” He tucks the scrap of paper with the sheiks’ phone numbers back into his wallet. He’ll try again to reach them tomorrow.