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Fear Casts a Shadow on ‘Free City’ Touted by Bush

Times Staff Writer

Last fall, thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops descended on this ancient city close to the border with Syria. In the shadow of an Ottoman-era castle, they fought in narrow alleyways to clear the city of insurgents.

Last week, President Bush held up Tall Afar as an example of success in the country, calling it “a free city that gives reason for hope for a free Iraq.”

The large-scale offensive in September, dubbed “Restoring Rights,” may have rid Tall Afar of hard-core insurgent cells. But today this ethnically mixed city has become mired in the same sectarian strife and economic problems that afflict much of the rest of the country.

Fear is palpable in the streets of Tall Afar. Residents complain that the city is increasingly divided as tribal violence sharpens the boundaries between Sunni and Shiite Muslim neighborhoods.

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“Violence has increased, mortar attacks have increased, roadside bombs have increased,” said Mohammed Taqi, a national legislator from the city who recently wrote to Iraq’s interim president and prime minister, requesting that Tall Afar’s administrative affairs be handled in Baghdad rather than the provincial capital, Mosul. The roads to that city -- as well as two neighborhoods in Tall Afar -- are controlled by insurgents, he said.

While acknowledging the rebel holdouts in the city, U.S. commanders here say that attacks have decreased significantly after last fall’s offensive.

To prevent more violence, the streets have been blanketed with troops. Four thousand U.S. troops and 8,000 Iraqi troops as well as about 1,700 police officers are in the city of 200,000 residents, said Col. Sean MacFarland, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division.

“You can’t go very far without seeing a patrol base or a checkpoint,” he said.

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But families in Tall Afar complain of no-go areas in the city, boundaries drawn up by sectarian violence or intimidation by rebels.

One sheik, Hashim Antar, said rebels were targeting Shiites to incite sectarian violence. These days, he said, Shiites cannot safely visit the city’s only hospital.

“What is increasing is the targeting of the Shiites by the terrorist groups,” he said.

MacFarland acknowledged that “there’s a lot of intimidation going on” in the city, adding that most of the recent violence is between tribes.

“The situation is bad in Tall Afar,” said Mohammed Abdullah, a 52-year-old retired government employee, as he was leaving the Khalil Yas mosque in the Sarai neighborhood Friday.

“Every day we hear about the police and the army clashing with armed men [and] random assassinations between the tribes,” said Abdullah, a Sunni. “The people can’t live their normal lives. The man is afraid of his brother.”

A hospital official said 71 Tall Afar residents had been killed in the last five months.

Although U.S. troops will remain in and around Tall Afar, commanders have moved up the date of the city’s transfer this year to the Iraqi army’s control.

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“Our goal is to slowly diminish the U.S. presence,” MacFarland said.

In a press tour last week arranged by U.S. officials to highlight advances made in the city, Mayor Najim Abdullah Jubouri said he believed it would take at least three years before Iraqi security forces would be able to secure the city without the help of American forces.

Later that day, a mortar attack in the city wounded six children.

Devising an economic as well as a military strategy will be key to overcoming violence in the city, U.S. commanders say.

“It’s been said that you can’t kill your way out of an insurgency, and it’s true,” MacFarland said. “I think a military-age male, after a hard day of digging the land, won’t go out and plant” roadside bombs.

But six months after the U.S.-led operation destroyed parts of the city, the local government has not honored claims from thousands of families whose houses or businesses were ruined.

The Iraqi government initially promised $50 million to rebuild the city, but not all of the money has arrived, said Mohammed Jimsheed, head of the city’s reconstruction committee.

Money to compensate families has been allocated but not yet distributed, Jimsheed said, pointing to a holdup at the mayor’s office.

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The mayor said that processing paperwork for nearly 30,000 families had taken longer than expected and that, eventually, each family would receive 250,000 Iraqi dinars, or about $170.

Many of Tall Afar’s residents remain displaced, some waiting for compensation to rebuild their homes, others fearing violence. MacFarland estimated that about a quarter of Tall Afar remained empty, with parts of the city still uninhabitable.

At the market, many shopkeepers draw the shutters and close their business as early as 4 p.m., afraid of walking through the city at night.

“The place here is not safe at all,” said Salim Ibrahim, a local leader. He, like many others, is still apprehensive about Tall Afar’s future. For now, he said, “it’s a city of ghosts.”

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A special correspondent in Mosul contributed to this report.


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