By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 29, 2007
BAGHDAD, March 28 -- A day after twin truck bombings laid waste to predominantly Shiite neighborhoods in the northern Iraqi city of Tall Afar, marauding Shiite gunmen and police executed dozens of Sunnis in retaliatory attacks that many Iraqis feared might precipitate a resurgence of open sectarian warfare.
The killings took place in a city once cited by President Bush as a sign of the U.S. military's success in pacifying the insurgency. Bush said in a speech almost exactly a year ago that the "example of Tall Afar gives me confidence in our strategy."
But parts of the city reverted to chaos and carnage Wednesday as gunmen went door to door assassinating as many as 60 people in revenge for the previous day's truck bombings, Iraqi military and government officials said. The attack was startling for several reasons, including the alleged participation of police officers in the killings and the implication that the six-week-old Baghdad security plan might be allowing violence to metastasize outside the capital.
But perhaps most ominous was the resurgence of reprisal killing at a time when U.S. and Iraqi officials have noted optimistically that Shiites have responded with restraint to recent insurgent bombings. The violence in Tall Afar follows Shiite reprisal attacks on three Sunni mosques south of Baghdad on Sunday, and it suggested to some Iraqi officials that Shiites are losing patience with government security forces.
"One side is killing the other. The car bombs are aimed at Shia, and when they see it so one-sided and it keeps carrying on, without any government action, I think it's a matter of time before they come back for revenge," said Haider al-Ebaidi, a Shiite lawmaker. To Ebaidi, the progress of the security plan, which U.S. and Iraqi forces began implementing in the middle of February, "so far has been very slow, and the longer it takes, the more pressure there will be on the people to seek help from militias, and this is very dangerous."
But U.S. military officials cautioned that the attacks in Tall Afar and south of Baghdad did not necessarily add up to a resurgence of Shiite militias, or the frenzy of killings witnessed after the bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra in February 2006.
"Whether we can say that some group is back or some militia is back after two isolated events in two different parts of the country is probably too early to say," said Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a U.S. military spokesman. "Whoever these folks are, in conjunction with the government of Iraq, we'll target them and go after them."
Tall Afar had as many as 200,000 residents several years ago, although U.S. military officials say the population has declined to 80,000. Most residents are ethnic Turkmen, about 70 percent of them Sunni and 25 percent Shiite. The violence began Tuesday when a truck detonated in a crowd of Shiites, followed by another truck bombing in a busy shopping district, according to the mayor, Brig. Najim Abdullah. The blasts killed at least 85 people and wounded nearly 200, according to Salih Kaddou, a physician at Tall Afar Hospital.
Later that night, police officers and other gunmen went on a rampage in Sunni neighborhoods, military and local officials said. Many of the men, women and children killed had been handcuffed and shot in the head, Kaddou said.
"Bodies were in the streets and no one could remove them because of the curfew and the police cars which were roaming the streets," said Yashar Abdullah, an official with the Iraqi Turkmen Front, a prominent political party in Tall Afar.
A lieutenant colonel from the Iraqi army's 3rd Division said soldiers intervened and detained 20 policemen, but then freed them for fear of wider violence as hundreds of people demonstrated, demanding their release.
"They are well known and identified and will be held accountable later on," said the Iraqi officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Some Iraqi officials said they believed the police acted not on the orders of superiors but as individuals.
To the U.S. military, Tall Afar has long been considered a success story, a city where the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment -- then led by Col. H.R. McMaster, now a top adviser to the U.S. commanding general in Iraq -- quelled a violent insurgency in 2005. But the U.S. military rotated that unit out and deployed a smaller one to replace it. More recently, many trained Sunni policemen in the city were dismissed, and hundreds of untrained Shiites were hired to replace them.
On Wednesday at the government center in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, about 15 Iraqi and U.S. troops were injured in two coordinated suicide truck bombings in which chlorine gas was used, the U.S. military said in a statement.
Staff writer Karin Brulliard and special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim, Saad al-Izzi and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad, other Washington Post staff in Iraq, and staff writer Thomas E. Ricks and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.