A masked teenager in an Iraqi army uniform walked slowly through a crowd of 400 detainees captured Monday, studying each face and rendering his verdict with a simple hand gesture, like a Roman emperor deciding the fate of gladiators.
A thumb pointed down meant the suspect was not thought to be an insurgent and would be released by U.S. soldiers. A thumb pointed up meant a man would be removed from the concertina wire-encased pen, handcuffed with tape or plastic ties and taken by truck to a military base to be interrogated.
"Another bad guy right here," an American interpreter shouted when the masked Iraqi singled out a man in a yellow dishdasha, or traditional gown, who shook his head and protested in Turkish. A captive who was spared exhaled with relief and placed his hand on his heart.
This is how the 10-day-old invasion of Tall Afar unfolded Monday. After two days of relatively uneventful patrols in the abandoned neighborhood of Sarai, where commanders had expected insurgents to be massed for a fight, U.S. and Iraqi forces turned north in the morning, to neighborhoods they had already cleared, and found hundreds of men who appeared to be of military age and fighters believed to have slipped through their cordons.
Eventually, 52 men were placed in the open backs of flatbed trucks bound for Camp Sykes, about seven miles south of this northwestern city. During the attack on insurgents here -- the largest urban assault in Iraq since the siege of Fallujah in November -- the only significant clashes came in the early days, when thousands of American and Iraqi troops stormed the city and U.S. jets waged a relentless bombing campaign.
Since then, the fighters who controlled much of Tall Afar for nearly a year have either fled or laid down their arms to blend among the civilian population, commanders here said. Instead of a Fallujah-style assault, the invasion has largely become a citywide roundup designed to prevent insurgents from lying low to fight another day.
Soldiers with little training relevant to the mission have been forced into roles more traditionally assigned to police: gathering evidence, interrogating witnesses and suspects, and following up on leads. In searching almost every house in the city's most violent neighborhoods, they have detained hundreds of young men, some because they possessed weapons or insurgent literature, but others solely on the hearsay of local informants often called "sources" by U.S. troops.
Many of the informants are residents of this city of more than 200,000 who now serve in the Iraqi army. Others had family members who were killed by the insurgents and said they wanted to help purge them from their neighborhoods. The U.S. soldiers who work with them acknowledge knowing little about their backgrounds and motives -- or even their names -- and admit that their reliability varies widely. Some of those named by sources have in turn said their accusers were carrying out tribal or sectarian vendettas, a charge they also level at Iraqi security forces.
The informants "are the first important step in the process of weeding these people out," said Capt. Alan Blackburn, commander of Eagle Troop of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which has led the invasion of Tall Afar. "You obviously can't just go by what they say because they make plenty of mistakes, but since we don't know these places as well as they do, it helps to have them around."
U.S. forces invaded Tall Afar one year ago, then withdrew as insurgents returned and reestablished control over the city. On Monday, Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of the country's main insurgent group, al Qaeda in Iraq, posted a statement on the Internet saying U.S. forces were "repeating their moves against Tall Afar after failing many times to break into it, as its lions many times forced them to taste humiliation, and the bitterness of defeat."
As in the past several days, Iraqi soldiers drawn primarily from the Kurdish pesh merga militia led the operation, joined as always by U.S. Special Operations soldiers, distinctive with their unkempt hair and facial stubble.
Just after 7 a.m., they streamed into the adjoining neighborhoods of Hassan Koy and Uruba, taking every military-age man into custody at a makeshift pen established by U.S. forces along a main road. The U.S. soldiers uncoiled enough concertina wire to hold an expected 50 or so men. But as detainees streamed out from the neighborhoods, the pens were expanded with more coils of wire until the holding area stretched an entire block.
U.S. commanders have praised the performance of the Kurdish forces during the operation, while privately expressing concern that their tactics sometimes verge on being heavy-handed. The pesh merga supports Kurdish rebels fighting the government of neighboring Turkey, and for many years the militiamen were targets of the Sunni Arab-dominated Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. The majority of Tall Afar's residents are Sunni Turkmens, ethnic relatives of the Turks.
Iraqi troops who raided suspected hideouts in a separate sweep late Monday killed 40 insurgents, and arrested 27 in clashes with militants, according to the Associated Press.
In a briefing the night before the morning operation, Lt. Col. Christopher Hickey, commander of the 3rd ACR's 2nd Squadron, instructed the Special Operations soldiers working with the pesh merga to avoid alienating residents.
"We lose these people if we go in there and tear people's homes apart," Hickey said.
By 8 a.m., nearly 400 people were assembled, squatting or seated in the dirt beside the road. Two of the men had bloodied faces and spots of red soaking through their green dishdashas.
"They tried to grab my father, and I said, 'He is old, you don't need to take him,' " said one of the men, whose upper lip and right ear were swollen and bleeding. "They hit us with their fists and their rifles."
Many of the men's hands were bound so tightly with plastic cuffs that their circulation was cut off, so U.S. soldiers cut the bindings and instead wrapped their hands with thick green tape.
The Special Operations soldiers, who do not provide their names to journalists as a matter of policy, said the pesh merga had found a former colonel in Hussein's army inside one home. But when U.S. soldiers looked through the pen, they could not find him. One of the Kurdish fighters said he had been delivered directly to a Kurdish commander.
"Get him down here right now," a Special Forces soldier said. "He is going to be processed here, by the U.S., like everyone else."
After about two hours, the informant arrived. Wearing tan camouflage fatigues, a flak jacket, a green ski mask and green helmet, the informant said he was from the neighborhood and was under 20 years old.
"I am doing this because I want to see the fear and violence leave Tall Afar," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
With a U.S. interpreter, he perused the crowd, pausing for less than two seconds to consider each man's fate. He never spoke a word aloud, only whispering occasionally to the interpreter.
After drawing out 52 suspects from the group, he spent longer assessing each of them in depth and providing more detailed information about their activities. He identified a man with a split lip and wearing a purple shirt and filthy white pants as "a beheader," saying he had killed at least 10 people.
"Cuts heads," Capt. Noah Hanners, leader of Blue Platoon in the 3rd ACR's Eagle Troop, wrote in blue marker on the man's forearm.
"You get treated special, buddy. Congratulations," Hanners said.
After conferring with the informant, the interpreter wrote on the white T-shirt of a man who had no identification papers: "His name is Nafe, but he is giving a different name."
Four others were identified as local insurgent cell leaders known as emirs, and "emir" was written on their arms. Several men had eagle tattoos on their arms, which the informant said indicated they were former members of the Fedayeen Saddam, a reputedly brutal militia run by Hussein's son, Uday. The informant slapped one man's tattoo, and when the man protested, an Iraqi soldier smacked him across the face with the back of his hand.
"Don't be slapping them," Hanners warned. "That's not how we do this."
Some of the American soldiers taunted the detainees by asking them, "Can you say Abu Ghraib?" referring to the prison west of Baghdad from which photographs of prisoner abuse emerged last year.
"No, Guantanamo," one smiling captive responded, referring to the U.S. military prison in Cuba where suspected terrorists are held. "I just don't want to go to the Iraqi army or police."
"Your source is not good, these are all innocent men," said a detainee wearing a gray dishdasha, who said he was a student in the city of Mosul, 40 miles to the east. "We are all Sunnis. That is why he chose us. He is Shia," he said, referring to the informant. Hanners said the quality of the informants has varied widely. "Some seem to say what they think you want to hear," he said. "Others give us information that pans out."
Another soldier, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he would be punished by commanders for his criticism, had a more negative view of the sources' performance. "We almost never get anything good from them," he said. "I think they just pick people from another tribe or people who owe them money or something."
Before boarding trucks and returning to their base, the Kurdish soldiers lined up behind the detainees and posed for digital pictures. They threw packages of food and bottles of water to a large group of children assembled across the road, many of whose fathers had been detained.
Some children picked up the gifts, but several grabbed them and threw them at the departing army vehicles. One truck quickly stopped and a soldier got out and pointed his pistol at the children, causing them to scatter briefly, before he drove away.
Soldiers and some neighborhood children gave the detainees food and water as they waited in the 100-degree heat for trucks to arrive to transport them to Camp Sykes. A woman in a long purple dress and white head scarf shouted at the remaining soldiers in Turkish, and others began to gather behind her.
"I give this 30 minutes before it gets out of hand," said Sgt. 1st Class Herbet Gadsden, surveying the scene. "We have to get these people out of here before their families go nuts."
At noon, two trucks arrived. Soldiers lined up the detainees, photographed each one with a digital camera and loaded them aboard. The crowd of family members faded back into their homes. "Another day of making friends," Hanners said, shaking his head.
Special correspondent Bassam Sebti in Baghdad contributed to this report.