By PAMELA HESSUPI Pentagon Correspondent
WASHINGTON, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- The United States and Iraqi forces have won the upper hand in a key region of northern Iraq, but the American commander warned Friday that victory may be fragile.
"This is a victory for the Iraqi people, it's a victory for the Iraqi security forces, but certainly it's a fragile victory. I mean, this is a brutal and determined enemy who wants to get back into the city, who wants to continue to brutalize these people," said Col. H.R. McMaster, commander of the 3d Armored Calvary Regiment, at a Pentagon teleconference Friday.
"We anticipate that this enemy will continue to try to come back. There will continue to be violence in the city. But we're very confident now that our combined forces -- the police, the army, our forces -- can preempt those attacks," he said.
The 3d ACR launched a months-long campaign last year to oust insurgents, foreign fighters and terrorists from the town and surrounding regions and re-establish civilian control.
"This was an important physical defeat for the enemy because they lost this safe haven and support base in an area that they hoped to use to destabilize the northern region of Iraq. It was also a very important psychological defeat to the enemy because people now understand that these anti-Iraqi forces want Iraq to fail. They now know, because we've been able to demonstrate our intentions with our deeds, that we, the Iraqi army, the Iraqi police, the leaders who have emerged from Tall Afar want Iraq and want
Tall Afar and western Nineveh to succeed," said McMaster.
The 3d ACR arrived in Tall Afar last summer to find the city largely in the grips of local insurgents and terrorist forces moving across the nearby Syrian border. Tall' Afar was a way station, the first stop on the way to key northern city of Mosul 30 miles to the east, and to Baghdad in the south.
"What we saw initially is the enemy was very organized before or specialized within cells, kidnapping and murder cells, mortar cells, sniper cells, and so forth. What we saw initially is a lot of these had consolidated, so you'd find in one house, you know, the propaganda material, the IED-making material, the sniper weapon, and then, obviously, we pursued this enemy.
"I mean, the enemy now, they're skulking around like rats, you know, at night, through the wadi systems and so forth in the city. They can't be seen, because it is them who are afraid," McMaster said.
In November of 2004 the entire western Ninevah province had been the target of a major insurgent offensive during which more than 40 police stations were destroyed by bombs and mortars, and most of the police force run off.
Tall 'Afar has its own set of problems. It's 250,000 residents are a complex tapestry of ethnicities and religions and tribes -- 82 of them. About 95 percent of the town is ethnically Turkmen, with about 5 percent Kurdish. 75 percent of the Turkmen are Sunni and 25 percent are Shia. The Kurds are almost entirely Sunni. While Kurds and Turkmen historically have warred, when sides are chosen in Tall 'Afar, the Turkmen Shi'ites often ally themselves with the Kurdish Sunnis against the Turkmen Sunnis.
On May 1, 2005, a suicide car bomber struck at a funeral in Tall 'Afar killing more than 20 Iraqis and inaugurated a virulent new phase in the insurgency -- between five and 10 attacks a day in the city, and in one month as many as 170. The 3d ACR believes the attack was an attempt by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi's organization to flame ethnic tensions.
"It seemed to be going well for the enemy as the regiment began to arrive in the area of operations in the summer of 2005. The enemy had taken over the schools, taken over the mosques. At least five civilians were being killed per day, at least that was the average," McMaster said.
The insurgent forces "hoped to incite sectarian violence which they did by collapsing the police force, turning the police force in effect into a sectarian militia that further fed the cycle of sectarian violence," McMaster said Friday.
While a Turkman Sunni mayor had governed the town, the police had been entirely Shi'a since 2004 when the Shi'a chief fired all 400 Sunnis.
When the 3d ACR arrived in Tall 'Afar in May, it discovered and freed two dozen abused and malnourished Sunnis being held prisoner by the police in town hall. The 3d ACR replaced the Shi'ite police chief with a Sunni general from Baghdad, and some 120 Tall 'Afar police have been referred to the Interior Ministry for investigation.
"I'm happy to report to you the situation in Tall Afar and in western Nineveh has fundamentally changed. And what we have been able to achieve there together alongside our Iraqi brothers is to bring life back to this area, to rekindle hope," McMaster said.
Attacks are down to 30 to 40 a month, McMaster said, and most contact with the enemy is initiated by American and Iraqi government forces.
The tipping point, according to McMaster, was the campaign to oust insurgents from their stronghold in a particular neighborhood in Tall 'Afar called Sarai. The campaign was marked by a 5,000-man joint U.S-Iraqi incursion to clear Sarai in September, but that was book-ended by a vast series of smaller raids in surrounding areas. By the time the 3d ACR got to Sarai, it was empty. That was the intention. The upcoming operation had been publicized in the hope that non-combatants and insurgents would flee, allowing the neighborhood buildings to be thoroughly checked and cleared of all weapons. It worked: During the three-day operation no casualties were reported and U.S and Iraqi patrol bases were established in the once impenetrable neighborhood.
With the town cleared of its violent element, the civilians returned to normal life. According to McMaster, it is going extremely well. Ninety percent of eligible voters took part in the December election, the entire town now has water and power, a function of improved security.
The key change is on the police force.
"Before the operation we tried very hard to rebalance the police force but,despite our efforts, only three Turkmen Sunna were able to volunteer because their families were in threat of being murdered if any of their sons or brothers or husbands joined the police force," McMaster said.
"Now we are building to a police force from what was 150 and all Shi'a, to a force of 1,765, who are just about fielded now, have been equipped and are undergoing additional training and integration with the Iraqi army's and our security efforts within the city."
The new force is roughly reflective of the population; about 70 percent of the new recruits are Turkmen Sunni, McMaster said.
"The most tangible thing we can see is that people are happy. Hope
is rekindled. Children rush to our soldiers. People spontaneously express
their gratitude to us and the Iraqi army. There are bonds of trust, mutual
respect, common purpose forming between the Iraqi army and the people, and
we're working on now reintroducing the police force and rebuilding its
credibility after the difficult period that the city is emerging from," McMaster said.
He also said some newborn babies have been named after 3d ACR soldiers, a sign of the esteem growing between the people of Tall 'Afar and the regiment.
McMaster credited the enemy he faces in Iraq with some of his victory.
"I mean, we ought to give the enemy credit for helping isolate themselves from this population. And their utter, utter brutality and inhumanity revealed what their true intentions were and allowed us to get after the enemy very effectively while protecting the population," he said.
As an example, 3dACR officials told UPI in September 2005 that one Tall 'Afar man was killed while retrieving the dead body of his 12-year old child, who had been shot to death by insurgents. The boy's body had been cut open, stuffed with an explosive device and dumped in the street. When the father picked him up, they both exploded.
"We'll stay after the enemy to maintain the momentum we have, maintain the initiative and, you know, make good on our effort here in the long term, so these people, who deserve security so much, have that security, enduring security, in the city and throughout western Nineveh province," he said.
The vast majority of the troopers in the 3rd Cavalry are in Iraq for their second tour of duty. They are expected to be redeploying to the United States this spring after a year in Ninevah.
McMaster said the unit replacing them has roughly the same numbers and capabilities -- attack helicopters, heavy armor, and artillery as well as infantry -- and knows it is in for a continued fight.
"There's not going to be any kind of degree of drop-off in effort," McMaster said.
McMaster as a major in 1997 wrote the influential book, "Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam."