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From part three:
Border controls are vital because once inside Iraq, foreign fighters are finding sanctuary in cities such as Tall Afar, a diverse city of 227,000 people that has become both a way station and base for attacks on US and Iraqi forces. "It has links to the [border crossing at] Rabiah and rat lines from Syria, so its traditionally a way station between Syria and Baghdad," says Captain Beaty.In spite of heroic individual and unit efforts, the American experience in Tall Afar over the next year would stand as an example of how not to conduct counter insurgency operations.
Moreover, current Tall Afar leaders have "no real intent of denying their town to criminals, terrorists, or any type of bad guy" says Rounds, indicating that provincial officials are prepared to replace them if they fail to act.
Within weeks of that August, 2004 report, coalition troops had moved in force into Tall Afar:
U.S.-Led Forces Retake Northern Iraqi CityThe American commander acknowledged the weaker than anticipated resistance was not necessarily a hopeful sign:
About 2,000 men -- two battalions from the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, and a battalion from the Iraqi National Guard -- pushed into Tall Afar at 3:15 a.m. to confront what U.S. military officials had expected would be about 200 insurgents who had taken over the local government.
Instead, the U.S. forces, backed by F-16 fighter jets, encountered only brief fire from small arms, U.S. military officials said.
U.S. officials consider Tall Afar, a predominantly Shiite Muslim city of about 250,000 people between Mosul and the Syrian border, a strategic transit point for foreign insurgents entering Iraq to battle U.S.-led forces.
In recent weeks, according to U.S. military officials, hundreds of Sunni Muslim extremists, Baath Party holdovers and foreign insurgents combined to rout the local police force and render the government ineffective. U.S. officials vowed to put down the insurgency and reinstall a legitimate government.
The U.S. military launched a major pre-dawn assault Sunday to wrest the northern city of Tall Afar from insurgents but encountered almost no resistance, leaving uncertain the whereabouts of fighters who have battled U.S.-led forces for months.But later coverage from the Army Times (archived here) indicated the attack wasn't quite the cakewalk described in the Washington Post:
An expected counterattack at dawn, when U.S.-led troops would no longer have the advantage of night-vision equipment, also did not materialize. "We thought there would be more, the indications were that there would be more, but there wasn't," said Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of U.S. forces involved in the operation. "There's some good news in there, and there's probably some bad news."
Ham said U.S. commanders concluded that some of the insurgents had probably fled in anticipation of the attack. Others, he said, probably gave up after being pounded by three U.S. airstrikes after the operation began on Thursday. It continued into Friday morning before a pause in the fighting.
"And then, thirdly, there is some indication that perhaps we killed more than we think we did [in] the first couple of operations," Ham said in an interview at Camp Freedom, a U.S. military base set up in a palace that once belonged to Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay.
No media were on hand to record the battle in this northern Iraq city of more than 300,000, but Army Times reconstructed the action through interviews with more than a dozen soldiers who were in the fight.
Reed admitted he was surprised by the intensity of the fight.
“It was the first time in 10 months I had observed men returning to their Strykers for re-supply of ammunition,” he said.
Meanwhile, B Company had run into problems of its own as it struggled to maneuver to the 1,500 meters to the crash site.
Rolling down one stretch of road, it was bracketed by heavy fire. Staff Sgt. Scott Hoover, vehicle commander of a Stryker anti-tank system, was in the lead.
“They were shooting out of the doors and windows,” he said of the insurgents.
“They hit us with over 15 RPGs,” said Mason, who described how the enemy seemed unafraid to mount close attacks.
“A lot of them were on the ground around our Strykers,” Mason said. “There was one guy — he had a PKC machine gun. One of my guys nearly cut him in half. … It was a long, linear, near ambush.”
One RPG round blasted into one of the company’s lead Strykers, damaging the transmission.
“I felt something slam into us,” recalled Sgt. Bryan Dabel, mortar section leader, who was inside the Stryker when it got hit. “We knew we were in the middle of a kill zone.”
The Stryker managed to roll out of the area for a few hundred meters. Hoover’s Stryker backed up to secure the front of the disabled Stryker. “It was very hectic, you really didn’t have time to think,” Hoover said. “There was so many [anti-Iraqi forces] coming from everywhere, there was a lot of quick shooting.”
“We had seven RPGs shot directly at our vehicle. … Everything was happening so fast.”
Sept. 4 was a war-zone reality check for B Company. Until then, the unit had only heard of this kind of fighting in areas such as Fallujah and Najaf, said Staff Sgt. Joe Labrosse, platoon sergeant for 1st Platoon.
“It was our turn now,” he said. “We were out the hatches. Everyone in the vehicle was firing. If we were running out of ammo, everybody was handing magazines to each other.”
Insurgents fired machine guns and RPGs all along the main road that B Company advanced along. “It was a gantlet,” Mason recalled.
The situation looked bad.
Scout Platoon’s Sgt. 1st Class Michael Keyes, who jumped into Panama with the 75th Ranger Regiment in 1990, said he thought he’d seen it all, until this fight.
“I thought, well, I’ve seen more s--- in Panama in four days until we got up here to Tall Afar,” he said. “Tall Afar has been pretty intense.”
Mason agreed. “It was definitely the biggest fight — on the scale of numbers of RPGs involved, this was the biggest fight,” Mason said.
“I’m amazed at how few casualties we had.
The Washington Post's initial coverage also noted the American failure to establish a legitimate government and get out within one day of taking the city. The American commander explained that they were not planning on occupying Tall Afar and intended to turn over authority to the Iraqis before the upcoming January, 2005 elections:
In recent weeks, according to U.S. military officials, hundreds of Sunni Muslim extremists, Baath Party holdovers and foreign insurgents combined to rout the local police force and render the government ineffective. U.S. officials vowed to put down the insurgency and reinstall a legitimate government.The troops in Tall Afar were executing then-current American strategy - built on a theory that turning over control to local governments as soon as possible and pulling back U.S. forces from population centers would demonstrate our intent not to occupy Iraq. Predicated on the (correct) theory that Iraqis - like people everywhere - would embrace the opportunity for self-government, the policy failed to take into account an enemy that was unimpressed with nearby FOBs.
But U.S. forces were unable to accomplish that Sunday, essentially leaving the U.S. troops as the authority in the city. Ham said he hoped to have a new mayor installed within two days. He attributed the delay to "friction and failures of coordination." The main problem, he said, was the inability of U.S. and Iraqi authorities to replace the dissolved Tall Afar police force with 600 officers from the province.
U.S. officials say they believe it is crucial to reestablish authority over insurgent-controlled areas before nationwide elections scheduled for January.
"Having us stay there is exactly the wrong thing," Ham said. "First of all, we don't have enough forces to stay in the city. But it also sends a message to those that oppose us. It lets them say, 'See, we told you, they really are occupiers. They've taken over a city.' "
And the next day the Post would again hammer the Americans for their failure to instantly create a strong local government in Tall Afar:
By American accounts, two days of delays in installing a new local administration stemmed from unfinished work in the provincial government to choose a new mayor and put together a 600-man police force for Tall Afar, a city of about 250,000 people located about 60 miles from the Syrian border.However, eager to prove they weren't occupiers,
The officers said they hoped the still-unidentified mayor would be installed Tuesday or Wednesday at a castle that serves as Tall Afar's city hall. Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of Task Force Olympia, which is responsible for Tall Afar, and Duraid Kashmoula, governor of Nineveh province, would likely attend the ceremony, the officers said.
"There's basically a power vacuum right now," said Army Capt. Nathan Terra. "That's why we're keeping people out" of the city.
"If we don't," he added, "the bad guys will go right back in and we'll have to do this all over again."
The U.S. actions in Tall Afar are part of a larger strategy to reestablish control over restive areas of Iraq before elections scheduled for January. U.S. officials say that strong local authority and security are crucial for successful elections.
On Monday, U.S. troops pulled back to a forward operating base on the outskirts of Tall Afar and were no longer operating continuously inside the city, Army Maj. Thomas Osteen said.A few days later, the citizens of Tall Afar who had evacuated before the fighting were allowed to return to their town:
Staff Sgt. Patrick Bloomer, who participated in the fighting, said he was frustrated that U.S. forces did not provide food, water or other assistance to people fleeing the city. "It seemed like the military part of the operation was sound, but if we're over here to help the people, we should at least try to do something," he said.Meanwhile, the American commander met the newly appointed mayor:
"For the last few days it's been bugging the crap out of me," Bloomer said. "You had pregnant women and children, and we have all this food and water stockpiled. We could have easily gotten it to them.
"I don't mind coming over here and doing my job, but it's not just conflict and combat. You've got to help people out just a little."
When Brig. Gen. Carter F. Ham, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, traveled into the city Thursday to meet the new local government, many shops remained closed. Scattered pedestrians walked the narrow streets in the blast-furnace heat as people trickled back into the city.American elections were imminent, as was a major operation in Fallujah, where months before (in the immediate aftermath of the abu Ghraib scandal) American forces had rapidly halted an operation and turned over control to local authorities, allowing the city to become an al Qaeda haven.
"I think Tall Afar will once again be a great city," Ham told the new mayor, Mohammed Rashid Hamid, as the two walked down the street, surrounded by armed U.S. troops and Iraqi police. "And I don't think it will take very long."
But the fighting has pushed reconstruction in Tall Afar back to square one. In a meeting Wednesday at the Army's Forward Operating Base Sykes, near Tall Afar, Maj. Tom O'Steen told Hamid: "I'd just like to start the meeting by asking the new mayor if we could confirm his name."
"We are caught in the middle between two fires," Hamid told the Americans. "On the one side, we have the terrorists, and on the other side, we have the coalition forces."
"As you know, this is a very important time for Tall Afar," responded Lt. Col. Kevin Hyneman, the deputy commanding officer for the 2nd Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade. "I don't want to rebuild it like an American would. I want to rebuild it based on your own priorities."
"But the most important thing is security," Hyneman said. "We don't want to have to go and do all of this again months from now or a year from now."
With those stories making headlines, Tall Afar vanished from American news (though even the stories above had not been front-page accounts). And a few months later the city would get only brief mention in coverage of the Iraqi elections of January, 2005:
...in Tall Afar, also north of the city, gunmen and Iraqi soldiers clashed for several hours after polls opened, curbing turnout.