With Death at Their Door, Few Leave Iraqi City

Residents flee to a camp outside  Tall Afar, which was seized by insurgents and is now the site of a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation.
Residents flee to a camp outside Tall Afar, which was seized by insurgents and is now the site of a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation. (By Mohammed Ibrahim -- Associated Press)
By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 7, 2005

TALL AFAR, Iraq, Sept. 6 -- On one side of the concertina wire lining an avenue stood 100 U.S. troops, five Bradley Fighting Vehicles and two M1-A1 Abrams tanks. Across the street were about 1,000 men, women and children of this embattled northwestern city.

The military had warned in leaflets dropped by helicopter and messages played over loudspeaker Tuesday morning that it would soon raid the insurgent-controlled neighborhood of Sarai, east of the city center, and asked civilians to evacuate through checkpoints in the southern part of town. But the Sarai residents, most of them Sunni Turkmens, insisted they would either flee northward or remain in their homes, come what may.

After an eight-hour standoff marked by a cycle of negotiation, miscommunication, occasional gunfire and flashes of anger, one family, about 17 people, agreed to leave the city with a military escort, after a U.S. commander gave the crowd "one final chance." The rest retreated into Sarai, vowing to take their chances.

"A lot of people are just barricading themselves in, which is a big mistake," said Staff Sgt. George Kakeletris, a psychological operations soldier who drove a Humvee all day up and down the avenue, which the military calls Bel Air, blaring messages in Arabic from speakers mounted on the roof.

About 5,000 U.S. and Iraqi soldiers entered Tall Afar four days ago in an offensive aimed at dislodging insurgents. Fighting has been sporadic so far. One U.S. soldier has been killed, along with at least 200 suspected insurgents, said Col. H.R. McMaster, commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which is leading the assault.

Five civilians were killed Tuesday when a suicide bomb detonated near an Iraqi army checkpoint. Four days of small-scale raids and house-to-house searches have allowed troops to encircle Sarai, where commanders here believe insurgents have massed.

The Iraqi government has asked the military commanders to minimize civilian casualties in this highly volatile region. A U.S.-led invasion of Tall Afar one year ago this month outraged the Turkish government, which argued that the assault victimized Turkmens, who share ethnic ties with Turks. When the U.S. withdrew, insurgents returned, capitalizing on anger over the offensive to consolidate control over the city, which has also been marred by sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite tribes.

"Steps are being taken to ensure that this is done with the least possible amount of harm done to civilians," McMaster said.

But several Sarai residents said they had been warned that Shiite residents or policemen, who are concentrated in southern Tall Afar, would attack if they left in that direction.

"I would rather die from American bombs in my home with my family than walk south," a man in a gray dishdasha , or robe, and white head scarf explained to soldiers. "People are saying the Shiites will kill you or kidnap you. That is a disgrace."

The evacuation of Sarai, the oldest section of Tall Afar and a web of narrow streets where fighting is expected to be difficult, was supposed to help prevent civilians from being hurt or killed during the offensive's final phase. The military strung nearly a mile of concertina wire along Bel Air, on the northern edge of the neighborhood, on Sunday to encourage people to migrate south, where it had established checkpoints to prevent insurgents from fleeing undetected. Among 200 people who followed instructions and fled south Tuesday, soldiers discovered a man suspected of being an insurgent who was dressed as a woman, complete with prosthetic breasts.

For the military, problems began at 8 a.m. Tuesday when soldiers who had spent the night in an abandoned house awoke to about 300 Sarai residents who had picked their way across the wire and were sitting in the street outside the house, asking how they could get out of Tall Afar.

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