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Police and Militants Gun Down Sunnis in Revenge Attacks

March 28, 2007 at 9:22 AM EST
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SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: These are the scenes from yesterday’s massive truck bombings in the northern Iraqi town of Tall Afar. The two simultaneous blasts Tuesday ripped through separate markets in Shiite areas, killing at least 60 people and wounding dozens more.

The chaos and carnage sparked a revenge killing spree there today, with Shiite militants and police killing dozens of Sunnis.

Tall Afar, a mainly ethnic Turkmen city, is located 260 miles northwest of Baghdad in the province of Nineveh. On religious lines, it is divided between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

Tall Afar became an al-Qaida stronghold after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. In 2005, a U.S. operation, under the command of Colonel H.R. McMaster, seen here at the time, a specialist in counterinsurgency warfare, recaptured Tall Afar. And the Bush administration touted that effort as a centerpiece in driving al-Qaida out of Iraq.

In a speech last year, President Bush spoke at length about Tall Afar.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: The success of Tall Afar also shows how the three elements of our strategy in Iraq — political, security and economic — depend on and reinforce one another.

By working with local leaders to address community grievances, Iraqi and coalition forces helped build the political support needed to make the military operation a success. The military success against the terrorists helped give the citizens of Tall Afar security, and this allowed them to vote in the elections and begin to rebuild their city.

And the economic rebuilding that is beginning to take place is giving Tall Afar residents a real stake in the success of a free Iraq. And as all this happens, the terrorists, those who offer nothing but destruction and death, are becoming marginalized.

SPENCER MICHELS: Although U.S. and Iraqi forces remain in control of the city, Tall Afar has been the target of continued sporadic attacks.

JIM LEHRER: And to Gwen Ifill.

Overstated optimism

Greg Jaffe
The Wall Street Journal
I think one of the byproducts of the big Baghdad security plan and the surge has been that we've shifted forces away from that city, both American, but even more important than that, Iraqi army forces.

GWEN IFILL: For more on Tall Afar, we are joined by Ahmed Hashim, who worked in Tall Afar as a political adviser to the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in 2005. He's now an associate professor at the Naval War College, and he lectures at Harvard.

And Greg Jaffe of the Wall Street Journal, he's reported from Tall Afar and has just returned from Iraq.

Mr. Hashim, given the latest violence, is it possible to assume at this point that perhaps the optimism that was expressed in 2005 about what was happening there was either overstated or premature?

AHMED HASHIM, Naval War College: I think it was overstated. Tall Afar was never consolidated after the 3rd ACR left.

The situation in the city has more to do with local grievances and identity conflicts between the Sunni Turkmen, and the Shia Turkmen. And it really is not al-Qaida who has infiltrated so much as the fact that what happened in 2003 is the formerly dominant Sunni-Turkmen majority there, that constitute 70 percent of the population, that controlled the police, the municipality, the security services.

They were primarily the teachers, and also there was about 20,000 Turkmen who were veterans of the former Iraqi army. Suddenly, they felt themselves having been thrown out of power.

And this is essentially their revenge on what they see as the empowerment of the Shia minority in the town, which has been helped by central power in Baghdad, which is, of course, now in the hands of the Shia.

GWEN IFILL: Greg Jaffe, if what Mr. Hashim says is correct and, in fact, all of these ingredients were there waiting, in some respects, for things to fall apart, what explains this latest outburst which we've been watching?

GREG JAFFE, The Wall Street Journal: You know, I think part of it is that we've been able to hold that city together and keep the peace where we've had a sizable presence. I think one of the byproducts of the big Baghdad security plan and the surge has been that we've shifted forces away from that city, both American, but even more important than that, Iraqi army forces.

There were some pretty good Iraqi army battalions up there, primarily made up of Kurdish-Peshmerga forces, that we shifted to Baghdad for the security plan there. And I think that created a vacuum in which a lot of these sectarian tensions were able to grab hold of the city.

GWEN IFILL: So you're saying there's kind of a domino effect. If you hold Baghdad, you lose something else?

GREG JAFFE: With the number of troops we have, both Iraqi and American right now, I think that that's unfortunately largely true.

Iraqis killing Iraqis

Ahmed Hashim
Naval War College
Inside the city itself, it's really a struggle between Turkmen of different religious sects. It's not so much that they suddenly woke up one day and started detesting each other because of the fact that one group is Sunni and the other is Shia.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Hashim, are the disputes we're seeing in Tall Afar, are they driven by religious division or ethnic division?

AHMED HASHIM: Well, it is between Turkmen primarily. Tall Afar is 90 percent Turkmen and only about 10 percent Arab and Kurd. Most of the Arabs are outside the town. That's primarily the Shammar tribe and so on.

Inside the city itself, it's really a struggle between Turkmen of different religious sects. It's not so much that they suddenly woke up one day and started detesting each other because of the fact that one group is Sunni and the other is Shia.

It's more the fact that political leaders, as well as religious leaders, in the town, and religious and political leaders outside of the town, are using the ethnic identity card to mobilize their respective communities, in order to gain the resources and the political power that they feel they have a right to.

And since the political game in Tall Afar, like much of the rest of Iraq, is essentially a zero-sum game, the ethnic card has basically mobilized hitherto primarily traditional city into sort of the kind of violence you see in the past several weeks.

GWEN IFILL: Is the violence, Greg Jaffe, that we've been seeing in the past several weeks being driven -- we've heard a lot about foreign fighters and al-Qaida and outsiders basically driving a lot of this. Is there any evidence of that?

GREG JAFFE: I don't think there's a lot of evidence of it. I know, when the 3rd ACR cleared Tall Afar as part of its Operation Restoring Rights, they did not find very many, if any, foreign fighters.

There may be some foreign elements stirring the pot; I don't doubt that there are. But I think this is primarily Iraqis killing Iraqis.

Establishing a lasting presence

Ahmed Hashim
The Naval War College
And we have a tendency in the U.S. to believe that, once the situation has been calmed down, we have a metric by which to measure calm, and then we can shift forces to another area. You actually need to stay for a very long time...

GWEN IFILL: Is this something that U.S. forces have just withdrawn from? Is there something that they were doing right in 2005, when things seemed to be resolved, or at least temporarily resolved, and something they're not doing at all now?

GREG JAFFE: I think there are a probably a couple of things. One, I think is just presence. I mean, numbers do count for a lot of these in these sorts of fights, especially people act irrationally when they don't feel secure or when they feel like their livelihood is threatened.

And a large U.S.-Iraqi army presence on the ground I think helps people feel secure. The 3rd ACR had numbers there that we don't have today on the streets, on people's blocks that made them feel secure.

The other thing that the 3rd ACR, I think, did particularly well -- and I don't whether the current unit is doing it as well -- is they really reached out to the key political Sunni and Shia players. And the lieutenant colonel working for Colonel McMaster in the city, Chris Hickey, did, I thought, a spectacular job of bringing those folks to the table and getting them to talk. And it required hours upon hours of sort of painful negotiation.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Hashim, having worked with the 3rd ACR that Greg Jaffe was just referring to and looking at the situation now, what would you say needs to happen in order to return Tall Afar to peace?

AHMED HASHIM: Well, I actually quite agree with Greg Jaffe here. We never met, I don't think, over there, but I worked with Colonel Hickey in the town and participated in those meetings.

Now, the 3rd ACR had a large footprint in the town, but it's not just a question of footprint. It's having the frame of mind of understanding what a counterinsurgency campaign requires.

It requires, not just fighting and getting insurgents, but it also requires the ability to build security, to reconstruct the town, and to get the two feuding communities to sit down and talk about how to begin the process of reconstructing the towns and rebuilding trust.

I mean, it was very difficult to get them to talk. They were feuding constantly, but we thought we'd made some headway.

Now, clear, hold, and build requires a large footprint, but it also does require an understanding of what counterinsurgency requires. And I think the 3rd ACR did a tremendous job in this regard. But once we left, I think the unit -- and I don't want to basically condemn it for anything -- but I think it didn't have the footprint that was required.

And we have a tendency in the U.S. to believe that, once the situation has been calmed down, we have a metric by which to measure calm, and then we can shift forces to another area. You actually need to stay for a very long time to be able to achieve the kind of peace, security, and trust between the communities.

A microcosm of Iraq

Greg Jaffe
The Wall Street Journal
It's the same dynamic, I think, that you see happening in Baghdad. The commanders are trying very hard there, I think, to try and broker political compromise between the Sunni and the Shia in a very difficult situation.

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about the metrics, Greg Jaffe. You've recently returned from another trip to Iraq. Is what we are seeing unfold in Tall Afar the exception or is it the growing rule?

GREG JAFFE: I mean, I think Tall Afar in some ways represents a sort of microcosm for Iraq. It's Iraq on a much smaller scale. And it's opposite of the fact that the Sunnis are the majority in the area and the Shiite Turkmen are the minority.

But it's the same dynamic, I think, that you see happening in Baghdad. The commanders are trying very hard there, I think, to try and broker political compromise between the Sunni and the Shia in a very difficult situation. And in some cases, I think the Maliki government, rather than helping their cause, is hurting their cause.

GWEN IFILL: Greg Jaffe and Ahmed Hashim, thank you both very much.

AHMED HASHIM: You're welcome.

GREG JAFFE: Thanks.