By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
CLEVELAND, March 20 -- As President Bush tells the tale, the battle for Tall Afar offers a case study in how U.S. and Iraqi forces working together can root out insurgents and restore stability. "The example of Tall Afar," he told an audience here Monday, "gives me confidence in our strategy."
Reports from the streets of Tall Afar, half a world away, offer a more complex story. U.S. forces last fall did drive out radicals who had brutalized the mid-size city near the Syrian border. But lately, residents say, the city has taken another dark turn. "The armed men are fewer," Nassir Sebti, 42, an air-conditioning mechanic, told a Washington Post interviewer Monday, "but the assassinations between Sunni and Shiites have increased."
The twists of Tall Afar underline the difficulties Bush has had in reassuring a doubtful American public that progress is being made in Iraq. The president and his aides say that the positive developments in Iraq get overwhelmed by the grim pictures of mayhem and massacre that dominate the evening news. If Americans knew about the success stories, the White House maintains, they would understand Bush's confidence of victory.
Yet even the success stories seem to come with asterisks. The administration hailed the election of a new democratic parliament last year, but the new body has so far proved incapable of forming a government for more than three months. U.S. forces have trained more Iraqi security troops, but the only unit judged capable of acting fully independently of U.S. assistance no longer can.
The cycle has taken a new spin with the latest evolution of Iraq from violent insurgency against foreign occupiers to sectarian strife bordering on civil war. Since the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra last month, hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in reprisals in a bloody spate of violence that has eclipsed most periods during the three years since the U.S.-led invasion.
All this has taken its toll on Bush's credibility, Republican strategists say, making it hard for him to make people see what he sees in Iraq. Continuing his latest drive to rebuild public support for the war, Bush flew to this Midwestern city on Monday to empathize with the pessimism many Americans feel as the war heads into its fourth year, while trying to explain the basis for his own optimism.
"In the face of continued reports about killings and reprisals, I understand how some Americans have had their confidence shaken," he told the City Club of Cleveland. "Others look at the violence they see each night on their television screens and they wonder how I can remain so optimistic about the prospects of success in Iraq. They wonder what I see that they don't."
To illustrate, he devoted his talk to Tall Afar, hoping to use the progress there as a symbol of hope for the rest of the country. The city of 290,000 in northern Iraq was at one point awash in violence, a haven for insurgents and foreign extremists. An initial U.S. military offensive in the fall of 2004 dislodged them only temporarily. When the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment returned last year, it set about trying a new, more patient strategy that focused more on winning over the local population, building cooperation with Iraqis, surrounding the city with a wall and ultimately flooding Tall Afar with patrols.
As Bush noted, the military heralded the offensive as a model for counterinsurgency. "The strategy that worked so well in Tall Afar did not emerge overnight -- it came only after much trial and error," the president said. "It took time to understand and adjust to the brutality of the enemy in Iraq. Yet the strategy is working."
Bush acknowledged that this offensive stood out. "I wish I could tell you that the progress made in Tall Afar is the same in every single part of Iraq. It's not," he said. But, he added, "the progress made in bringing more Iraqi security forces online is helping to bring peace and stability to Iraqi cities."
The Tall Afar strategy may not apply easily to other areas, particularly Baghdad -- a far larger and more populous city where it would take enormous numbers of U.S. troops to replicate the strategy, military analysts say.
The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment "did a wonderful thing" in retaking Tall Afar, said Ahmed Hashim, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College who advised the regiment on counterinsurgency and cultural tactics. But Hashim, who wrote a book on the Iraqi insurgency that is being published next week, said he doubts that the example is readily transferable to the rest of Iraq, in part because of the weakness of the central government in Baghdad.
Hashim said he has also seen indications lately that the insurgents have begun "seeping back in" to Tall Afar now that the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment has rotated home and been replaced by another Army unit. And given the deep ethnic and sectarian divides in Tall Afar, he said, it is quite possible that the city could succumb to civil war, along with the rest of the country.
A Washington Post employee interviewing residents of Tall Afar found continuing anxiety in the streets. "Al-Qaeda has started to come back again," said Jaafar al-Khawat, 33, a tailor. "They have started to kill Shiites and Sunnis who cooperate with the Americans. Last Wednesday, they killed a truck driver because he worked with the Americans."
Yasir al-Efri, 23, a law student at Mosul University, said al-Qaeda pamphlets began appearing on the biggest mosque in Tall Afar in the past two months claiming credit for attacks. "The Tall Afar mission failed," he said. "The city will turn back to how it was before the battle within two months. The Americans are busy putting cement barriers and barbed wire around their bases and no one is taking care of the infrastructure."
Sebti, the mechanic, was more fearful of sectarian conflict. "People now are afraid to send their kids to school," he said. "I have to take my son to and from the school every day. There are two gangs in Tall Afar now that specialize in kidnapping children. Police can do nothing against that."
In his Cleveland speech, Bush received supportive applause for removing Saddam Hussein but also faced polite skepticism from some who addressed him during a subsequent question period. No major Ohio politician other than the mayor appeared with Bush, whose approval ratings have sunk below 40 percent, and war protesters demonstrated outside the downtown hotel where he appeared.
One man in the audience asked about Bush's credibility given that some of the reasons he originally gave for the war proved false. The president quarreled with the contention in one instance, denying that he ever made a "direct connection" between Hussein and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, even though he often linked Baghdad with al-Qaeda generally. "I was very careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on America," he said.
Bush acknowledged that the credibility issue -- the failure to find weapons of mass destruction that the administration said were in Iraq -- affected his ability now to confront Iran, which he has accused of secretly building nuclear weapons. But he offered tough language for Tehran, characterizing it as bent on destroying Israel. "It's a threat to world peace, it's a threat, in essence, to a strong alliance," Bush said. "I made it clear, I'll make it clear again, that we will use military might to protect our ally Israel."
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Washington, correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer in Baghdad and a Washington Post employee in Iraq contributed to this report.