By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 11, 2005
TALL AFAR, Iraq, Sept. 10 -- The moment the Iraqi troops launched their attack just after 7 a.m. Saturday, the bullets began to fly. Gunfire echoed off centuries-old stone buildings in the insurgent-controlled neighborhood of Sarai: machine-gun bursts, booming tank rounds and an incessant crackle of AK-47s that lasted for most of an hour.
But the shooting spree was only going in one direction.
"So far, Iraqi army reporting no enemy contact," came the word over the radio, 45 minutes after the first shots were fired, to U.S. troops waiting to join the assault.
By the time the Americans entered Sarai -- in a rare supporting role to an Iraqi battalion comprising mostly the Kurdish pesh merga militiamen, who led the charge -- the labyrinthine warren of close-packed structures and streets too narrow for armored vehicles was eerily deserted.
Insurgents had fled, along with almost every resident, amid widespread word of an imminent offensive and heavy aerial bombardment that had lasted for days. Virtually every building in a 20-block radius was pockmarked with bullet holes, and many bore the trademark gaping holes blown by heavy explosives dropped nightly from the sky. Only a handful of dead bodies were found.
For many of the more than 5,000 U.S. and Iraqi soldiers in the city, Saturday brought only an anticlimax. Their eight-day-old counterinsurgency operation in this northwestern city, 40 miles from the Syrian border, had built toward an expected showdown with insurgents in Sarai.
"I was very unhappy. I came to capture bad guys and kill them, but we hardly saw any," said Iraqi army Cpl. Salar Omar, of Irbil. "One of the men we captured said that many ran to other cities."
Commanders proclaimed the relative lack of resistance a sign of the success of the operation, in which at least 550 suspected insurgents have been killed or captured, the vast majority of them Iraqi, including six of the 10 top targets the U.S. military had identified here. One U.S. soldier and five Iraqi troops also have been killed.
"I think what we saw today was the effect of our counterinsurgency and security operations in Tall Afar in the previous weeks," said Col. H.R. McMaster, commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. "The enemy then decided to bail out. They knew they were being destroyed."
The operation in Tall Afar, which U.S. and Iraqi officials have long considered a strategic hub for insurgents carrying out attacks across northern Iraq, will continue into the coming days, commanders here said. The city of more than 200,000 has been plagued by insurgent violence and clashes between Sunni and Shiite Muslim tribes. A year ago this month, American forces drove insurgents from the city only to see them return when U.S. troop strength in the region was reduced to about 500 soldiers. The total number of troops involved in this operation was 8,500, McMaster said.
In forgoing a fight, insurgents repeated a tactic they have employed in the face of counterinsurgency offensives in the neighboring province of Anbar, where Marines invading a string of insurgent strongholds met little resistance from fighters who moved elsewhere or hid among the civilian population.
In Baghdad on Saturday, three Iraqi cabinet officials held a news conference to discuss the unfolding events. Defense Minister Sadoun Dulaimi told reporters that other cities could soon see offensives like the one in Tall Afar.
"We tell our people everywhere -- in Qaim, Rawah, Samarra and Ramadi -- that we are coming and there will be no hideout or place for the terrorists," he said.
In recent days, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers operating throughout the city had converged on Sarai, where fighting was expected to be fiercest. One U.S. squadron of just over 1,000 soldiers had planned for roughly 10 casualties per day during the assault. The night before the attack, commanders pored over aerial photographs of the neighborhood, which is so densely constructed that buildings were all but indistinguishable, making it difficult to plot a route for the attack.
"It's pretty much the worst urban terrain for fighting imaginable," said Capt. Alan Blackburn, commander of the Eagle Troop of the 3rd Armored Cavalry's 2nd Squadron, as he peppered his platoon commanders with questions about how to deal with wounded soldiers or large numbers of dead civilians.
Blackburn's intelligence showed that from 75 to 100 insurgents remained in Sarai, along with as many as 500 civilians, despite frequent messages broadcast over U.S. military loudspeakers calling on residents to evacuate.
Soldiers sleeping on the roof of a building on the southern edge of Sarai were awakened at 1:30 a.m. by a massive explosion from a ground-fired rocket, one of nine fired on the neighborhood during the operation, along with 20 Hellfire missiles, 20 2.75-inch rockets from AH-64 Apache helicopters, and 22 105mm rounds from AC-130 Specter gunships. Tanks also regularly fired rounds from their large main guns into the neighborhood
"Imagine being down there when you hear those things coming in," said Pfc. Patrick Hewitt, 19, of Frederick, Md., watching smoke billow from Sarai. "You must just be like, 'Oh my god, not again.' "
At 5 a.m., U.S. soldiers gathered at a bullet-riddled high school on the edge of Sarai and waited for the attack to begin. Three hours later, with the Iraqi army barrage still underway, Capt. Noah Hanners marched his Blue Platoon into Sarai to begin searching buildings for insurgents or evidence of their activity.
The soldiers walked quickly along both sides of a wide avenue, into what could have passed for a Hollywood version of a war zone: buildings missing roofs destroyed by explosions; blackened vehicles, some still smoking; shattered glass littering the road. They stepped over shell casings of all shapes and sizes.
It was impossible to determine how much of the destruction was recent and how much had been left unrepaired for months, or years.
The soldiers gathered material they considered suspicious, labeled it with permanent markers and placed it into garbage bags: in one house, military handbooks with diagrams showing how to conduct ambushes and make explosives; in another, three molotov cocktails; in a mosque, which had three large holes in its ceiling and shrapnel from a Hellfire missile among the rubble of its floor, grenades in a side room.
They confiscated computer disks and video controllers with the wiring removed, which can help trigger roadside bombs, and poked long sticks into water drums and baskets of grain to search for weapons.
In an alcove of one home, a newly dead body reeked so strongly that some soldiers gagged when they approached. Another body, a few blocks away, was missing most of its face. Some signs of life remained: a half-eaten bowl of rice, an unmade bed.
But each of the roughly 20 homes that Hanners' platoon searched -- many of which seemed ancient, with asymmetrical floors, slanted stone walls and tiny doors -- had been abandoned.
"That we had so little resistance shows the operation has been effective," Hanners said. "In that area, you normally wouldn't have lasted five minutes without getting shot up."
McMaster said the reconstruction of Tall Afar would begin soon after offensive operations were complete and insisted the city would not fall under insurgent control again. Already, $2.4 million in U.S. money has been allocated for infrastructure projects, but because of the violence, the military had been unable to persuade contractors to work here.
"They want this city to fail. They want Iraq to fail," McMaster said of the insurgents. "But the No. 1 priority is being met by this operation, which is to defeat the terrorists so they can no longer prevent reconstruction from happening."
In Baghdad on Saturday, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari ordered Iraq's northern border crossing into Syria sealed after complaints that the neighboring country was not doing enough to stop crossings by foreign fighters. The order, read on Iraqi television by Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, closed the border to all transportation, except for vehicles with special permission from the Interior Ministry, and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the area.
Jabr said the closure was in effect under further notice.
About 30 miles south of Baghdad, meanwhile, police found the bodies of 18 men who had been handcuffed and shot to death in Iskandariyah, a town where dozens of killings have been reported in escalating vengeance killings by Shiite and Sunni death squads.
Baghdad International Airport reopened early Saturday after a day's closure in a payment dispute between the government and a British security company. Global Strategies Group said it agreed to resume security work after the government promised to pay half of what the company said it is owed.