Regiment's rotation out of Tal Afar raises questions about U.S. strategy

TAL AFAR, Iraq—The mayor of this city in western Iraq is unhappy that his friends in the U.S. Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment are going home soon, and he's written to President Bush and Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, begging them to extend the regiment's tour of duty until it's finished pacifying Tal Afar.

The mayor, Najim Abadullah al Jibouri, is a Sunni Muslim Arab and a former officer in Saddam Hussein's army who's not from Tal Afar. The provincial police chief in Mosul last summer appointed him a brigadier general to replace the local police chief, a Shiite who was turning a blind eye to police commando units that were "disappearing" suspected insurgents, all Sunnis. Terrorists had blown up the police stations and driven out most of the policemen who weren't killed. On a U.S. recommendation, he was later promoted to mayor.

Since then, al Jibouri has worked hand in glove with Col. H.R. McMaster, the commander of the 3rd ACR, and Lt. Col. Christopher Hickey, who commands Sabre Squadron, which is based inside Tal Afar. The mayor doesn't want them to leave when their yearlong deployment is over in March.

The regiment's success and the mayor's concern about its departure raise two important questions about America's strategy in Iraq:

The first is whether the American practice of rotating troops in and out of Iraq—typically one-year tours of duty for soldiers and seven months for Marines—may be undermining the fight against Iraq's insurgency.

Limiting tours as the United States did in Vietnam helps relieve stress, support families and maintain morale. It also means that soldiers and Marines who are new to an area have to learn all over again what their predecessors discovered, often the hard way. And it disrupts personal relationships, such as the one al Jibouri has developed with McMaster and Hickey, which are indispensable in Iraq.

Over cups of hot, sweet tea, al Jibouri slyly jabbed at McMaster, a Philadelphia native who commanded a tank company in the 2nd Armored Cavalry in the Gulf War, and Hickey, an Army brat who was born at Fort Bliss, Texas, but grew up everywhere. "For you to leave is like a surgeon leaving in the middle of an operation," he said.

"We don't doubt there are many fine officers in the American army," the mayor explained. "But during these months, Colonel Hickey and I have created a relationship where I know what he will say even before he says it ... and he knows what I will say. We have been through hard times together to forge these bonds. You should finish the job and then you can move on. An incomplete solution isn't a good solution."

The second question is whether the United States has sent enough troops to Iraq to duplicate the 3rd ACR's success in Tal Afar in bigger cities and nationwide. Al Jibouri said the American cavalrymen in Tal Afar had conducted "the best operation in Iraq, with none of the big destruction like in Fallujah."

Tal Afar has some 250,000 people, and the city is relatively remote and self-contained. The 3rd ACR, which has some 4,700 troops, walled off the city and cleared out terrorists and insurgents block by block, which is harder to do in larger cities such as Baghdad and Mosul. It's even more difficult to prevent insurgents who are driven out of cities such as Tal Afar from finding refuge elsewhere.

Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who commanded the Army's 101st Airborne Division, was given high marks for rebuilding the Mosul area after the 2003 invasion, but community relations soured when his division left and was replaced with a much smaller brigade.

And while violence is way down in Tal Afar compared with last summer, there are only faint signs of reconciliation between the city's competing ethnic groups. Order is enforced by outsiders with a heavy military hand.

McMaster and his troops arrived last summer after Tal Afar suffered 140 terrorist attacks—with mortars, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and shootings—in June. Today such attacks average about one per day, or 30 in a month.

Tal Afar's people, most of them Turkmens, were bitterly divided between Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam. After the overthrow of Saddam's Sunni-dominated government, some Shiites in the ascendance began to persecute the Sunnis, who are a majority locally. Sunnis counterattacked, and linked up with and sent money to the Sunni-dominated insurgency. While some foreign jihadists entered the city, most fighters were locals or other Iraqis.

Abductions and executions were the order of the day, with beheaded victims thrown into the street at a busy traffic circle in the heart of the city. A young man was killed by the terrorists, al Jibouri said, then disemboweled and his body was stuffed with explosives. When his father came to get the body, the bomb exploded, killing him, too.

The Americans, when they struck back in September, had prepared the battleground carefully. They built a high dirt wall around the city, some three miles by three miles in size, and blocked roads to isolate the worst neighborhoods.

McMaster said Tal Afar is unusually compact for an Iraqi city, making it practical to wall off the area. The city sits astride key infiltration and smuggling routes from Syria to Mosul and the north. Insurgents were using it as a training camp and housing area.

After constructing the berm, U.S. forces, with Iraqi army and police, evacuated the city's residents, funneling them down a controlled route to a holding camp. U.S. troops then accompanied Iraqi forces in house-to-house searches, using pinpoint artillery and air attacks on houses where they encountered resistance. Real-time video provided by unmanned aerial vehicles was combined with old-fashioned whispered tips from neighbors to choose the targets.

While there was some collateral damage, it was nothing close to the scale of the combined Marine and Army assault on Fallujah in November 2004. Hundreds of the enemy were killed, the mayor said, and hundreds more were caught in the net—some dressed in women's clothes with their beards shaved off in a desperate attempt to get away.

Then the Americans, the mayor, a new chief of police and an emboldened Iraqi army division began the long, hard work of pacifying a frightened city and restoring some semblance of law and order.

How well have they succeeded?

"Go look in our city," the mayor said. "The children run after the American officers. They know their names. These men are heroes in Tal Afar."

Success in clearing insurgents from the streets also has stoked the Iraqi forces' self-confidence, U.S. officers say, and their capabilities have improved markedly.

On Sunday, a dozen Sunni and Shiite tribal leaders sat down with the mayor at the city's ancient castle, the first such meeting in several years. They said they'd meet again for dinner at some future date to continue their dialogue.

At the same time, however, shops remain shuttered on the major thoroughfare that divides Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, and the owners are fearful of reopening. Residents often are still afraid to leave their neighborhoods.

McMaster did his best to assure the mayor that the 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, which will be replacing his cavalry regiment, is commanded by a friend who's "a superb officer well suited to the job." He added that the battalion commander who'll succeed Hickey in the city "is more than equal to the task" and adds that he's a Rhodes scholar.

When McMaster said the mayor's idea of extending his cavalrymen's 12-month tour in Iraq would "disappoint 5,000 families," the mayor responded: "I offer my sincere thanks to these American families. I think if they understood what you are doing here they would let you stay."

The next morning, Hickey was back out in the streets, stopping his Bradley fighting vehicle to get out with his translator and talk to men in a poor Shia neighborhood.

A young man, who hobbled along on a crutch, complained that he was afraid to go to the city hospital to have the metal brace and screws that pinned his broken leg together six months ago removed. He said that there were terrorists all around it.

Hickey explained that was six months ago; today, the Iraqi police control that area, and it's safe and secure and free of terrorists. Scores of young and old pressing around to listen were as skeptical as the young man with the crutch was.

Hickey offered the Iraqi a ride to the hospital in his Bradley. There he was met by the police precinct commander and the chief physician at the hospital. He was assured a ride home with the now-friendly police after his X-ray was taken and it was determined that he'd have to go to Mosul to have a specialist remove the medical device that should have been removed months before.

Hickey hopes that the young man will pass the word to his neighbors that it's safe to go to the hospital, that, yes, they do surgery there and deliver babies and the police are helpful, not threatening.

Progress in counter-insurgencies is often measured in such small, hobbling steps.