The U.S. soldiers sensed something wasn't quite right when an ambulance carrying two dead bodies arrived Thursday morning at a checkpoint for people evacuating this city under siege.
Hanging off the sides of the vehicle were three young men who said they were escorting the remains of family members killed in the previous night's bombardment to a local hospital. But when an Iraqi policeman looked them over, he pointed to a man who wore white sweatpants and a white shirt and appeared to be in his early twenties. "I know him. He must be detained," the officer said. "He murdered a policeman."
The interrogation by American soldiers initially went nowhere. The man insisted he spoke Turkish, not Arabic, and therefore could not communicate with the Americans' interpreters. Asked his name, he kept alternating between "Habib" and "Faris." At one point, he rolled on the floor making retching noises as if he were going to throw up. But everything changed when exasperated soldiers said they had no choice but to turn him over to the Iraqis, who were anxious to take him into custody.
"Yes, I am a terrorist, yes," the man said in perfect Arabic, his ailment apparently forgotten. "I would rather you shoot me in the head than give me to them."
The episode underscored what many U.S. troops have said is among the most difficult tasks they face in battling the insurgency across Iraq: identifying fighters who blend seamlessly into the local population.
American commanders have long insisted that growing numbers of Iraqi security forces will make that job much easier by providing an insider's knowledge of local communities. Privately, U.S. commanders also acknowledge that the Iraqi troops' reputation for heavy-handed treatment of prisoners cuts two ways: It can terrify prisoners into talking but undermine the rapport policemen and soldiers have with the populations they serve.
In Tall Afar, where a week ago U.S. and Iraqi troops launched their largest urban assault since the push into Fallujah last November, soldiers are simultaneously working to help people flee in anticipation of an imminent attack on the city center and to prevent insurgents among them from escaping undetected.
Heavy bombing continued Thursday evening, as U.S. jets dropped 500-pound J-DAM precision bombs and other munitions into the insurgent-controlled neighborhood of Sarai, while playing messages over loudspeakers that called on residents to evacuate. Nearly 1,000 people left the city through U.S. checkpoints Thursday, and commanders said intelligence showed that insurgent leaders were attempting to vacate the city.
Iraqi policemen and soldiers are fully integrated into nearly every aspect of the Tall Afar operation, often attached to units from the U.S. Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which is leading the assault, or advised by small groups of U.S. Special Forces soldiers. Among the units here are several battalions of the Iraqi army's 3rd Division, which is based in northwestern Iraq, and a battalion of Kurdish soldiers assigned to Tall Afar for this operation. Hundreds of regular Iraqi policemen and police commandos are also being brought to the city to man stations that U.S. forces have said they will establish once the fighting wanes.
The performance of Iraqi troops in this region has improved dramatically since the 3rd Armored Cavalry arrived in April, U.S. commanders said. In early June, an Iraqi platoon led by two U.S. soldiers was ambushed in Sarai. When machine-gun fire rained down on the platoon, most of its members fled. An American lieutenant colonel was killed in the engagement.
"When we started with them, whenever they would receive a little fire they would either run or do what we called the 'death blossom' -- basically spraying in all directions, which was dangerous for us and dangerous for the town," said Lt. Col. Christopher Hickey, who leads the 3rd Armored Cavalry's Sabre Squadron and works closely with Iraqi commanders. "Through leadership and experience, they have become more disciplined."
Lacking sufficient numbers of skilled interpreters for interrogations, U.S. forces operating independently of Iraqi units have sometimes struggled in their attempts to find insurgents during several days of house-to-house searches in Tall Afar.
On Sunday, soldiers from Eagle Squadron's Blue Platoon raided the home of a suspected insurgent named Suleiman Dawou. When they arrived at the house, Dawou was gone, but they found a man they believed to be his cousin. They asked in English if the cousin knew where Dawou was, and the man said no. Believing he was lying, the soldiers placed him in plastic cuffs and told him that he was being detained. They began filling out paperwork required to take him into custody when an interpreter arrived and tried questioning him one last time.
"I thought the soldiers said Salman Dawou," the man told the interpreter. "I know Suleiman, but I have not seen him for months." The soldiers let him go.
But while Hickey and other commanders said the participation of Iraqi troops will help immeasurably with efforts to identify insurgents, there is also concern here, as in other Sunni Arab communities across Iraq, because the Iraqi units are predominantly composed of Shiite Muslims or ethnic Kurds. Hickey said that U.S. forces have met with local Sunni leaders to encourage recruitment of Sunnis into police and army units. But after a series of meetings last month in which the tribal leaders said they would provide lists of candidates, only three names were put forward.
"Part of the problem is the security situation is so bad here that no one wants to be a policeman," Hickey said. "Once that improves, we are hoping more of them will sign up. The ideal is for people to be policing their own people, their own neighborhoods, so they have a stake in doing it right."
Civilians fleeing Tall Afar, where most residents are Sunnis from the Turkmen ethnic group, were told by U.S. troops to evacuate through checkpoints in the southern part of the city. But many said they were too afraid to enter south-side neighborhoods where most police and residents are Shiites.
The Kurdish soldiers involved in the operation here are members of the pesh merga militia that battled the Sunni-led government of former president Saddam Hussein and that supports Kurdish forces fighting the government of neighboring Turkey. They will particularly relish their role invading a stronghold of the Turkmens, who have strong ethnic ties to Turkey, American commanders said.
"They are champing at the bit," said Hickey, who denied that zeal would lead to overly aggressive tactics. "They are a professional fighting force with a good reputation. They want to keep that intact."
The man who was plucked from the ambulance and interrogated Thursday appeared genuinely frightened of facing the Iraqi police. "Please no," he repeated several times. Once soldiers realized they had a lever to extract information, they called for Iraqi policemen to sit in on the questioning. The officers said the man was involved in a gruesome killing of a local policeman who was beheaded, his corpse placed on the street with a bomb lodged inside of it that exploded when a dog began sniffing at the body.
When the policemen first entered the room, the man turned to face the corner, refusing to look at them. After a series of increasingly pointed questions shouted at him, he became defiant.
"No matter what you say, I am a holy warrior. I am going to paradise," he told the interrogators, referring to the belief cited by many insurgent fighters that those who die for their cause have a special place in the afterlife. "The rest of you are infidels who will go to hell."