US, Iraq race to keep extremism at bay in north
Tal Afar, Iraq (AFP) April 1, 2009
In a remote but strategic corner of northern Iraq, US and local security forces are racing against time to win over the war's disenfranchised and prevent the return of an extremist insurgency.
Relaunching basic services for the 2.8 million people in the agricultural province of Nineveh, criss-crossed with key oil pipelines to Syria and Turkey, is seen as key to crushing the rebellion sparked by the 2003 US-led invasion.
With US soldiers still fighting to secure the troubled provincial capital of Mosul, American and Iraqi forces have managed to maintain a fragile peace in and around Tal Afar for the past three months.
The city could even become a model of security as US forces prepare to draw down troops this year ahead of a complete withdrawal by 2011, according to Guy Parmeter, a US army Lieutenant Colonel based there.
"We only patrol outside the city, not inside Tal Afar. So in many ways many of the things that will begin in phase two of the security agreement we are already doing here," he told AFP.
Tal Afar, a clean and orderly city 80 kilometres (50 miles) west of Mosul, has a mainly Sunni and Shiite Turkmen population of a quarter of a million. It was swept by relentless violence between 2004 and 2006.
US commanders said its position near the Syrian border meant it was often used as a conduit for militants wanting to join the insurgency.
Sporadic attacks continued last year, but nothing like the massive truck bomb that slaughtered 150 people in 2007.
The former Ottoman empire outpost, with its walled castle and narrow cobbled streets, was also the scene of repeated US and Iraqi counter-assualts, including one of the fiercest battles of the Iraq campaign in 2005.
Today the city has sprung back to life, although bombed out buildings remain testament to the ferocity of the fighting that took place there.
Outside Tal Afar the soil is rich, good for growing grain. Kurds claim much of the land as part of their ancestral home, but Sunni and Shiite Arabs, Christians and Yazidis have also all settled there.
Ethnic complexity and high unemployment have made easy recruitment grounds for extremists, which is why the US army is moving quickly to restore water and electricity and get businesses going again.
"When we looked at the faultlines we found that often it was not so much sectarian but economic and governance issues that are the drivers of instability," said Parmeter, who heads the 3rd Battalion's 69th Cavalry troop.
"The other driver of instability is us. If our deeds don't match our words at the user level, we run the risk of allowing nefarious actors to rally others around their ideology."
This is not the first time Washington has thrown money at problems in Iraq, but the current strategy is meant as a stopgap after provincial elections on January 31 reshuffled the political map.
Local budget requests are not expected to be reviewed until the local parliament next sits, said Parmeter, adding that the government was working but not yet firing on all cylinders. Its next meeting may be in June.
The funding vacuum needs to filled fast. Recent rainfall may have turned the hilly deserts of northwestern Nineveh iridescent green, but farmers say it is too little too late to reverse a four-year drought.
"Without revenues from the land there is no possibility of buying grain for animals. To survive we sell sheep," said Amid Ahmed Mohammed, a farmer and local village leader in Dubanah just east of Tal Afar.
"The government is too slow. They make promises but we are still waiting. So all we can do is depend on ourselves," he said. "The war right now is no longer a gun battle but a fight to get services."
While the insurgency in Mosul has yet to be tamed, officials insist much of the surrounding countryside is now safe.
Local Iraqi army chief Major Shamel Salem says hardline rebels are on the run: "There is no place for the insurgents to hide. We are hunting them."
After six years of US occupation, Nineveh is undoubtedly still the key battleground.
Just how many insurgents operate in and around Mosul is unclear, although the US military estimated last November that 1,500 remained at large. February alone saw 100 captured.
"There's a back and forth of insurgents in and out of Mosul," said Hussein Barem, an Iraqi sergeant at the joint command centre in the American base.
He said security forces had staunched the flow of fighters, but they continued to traffic in explosives.
"What is helping is that the people now trust the Iraqi army and police. Whenever they see something suspicious or see people that don't belong to the area, they call us.
"Tal Afar used to be just like Mosul is today. At night when I went home in a taxi, I could never trust anyone. Now it's really much better," he added.
But the peace is fragile at best. On Tuesday, a suicide truck bomber in Mosul killed at least seven people, including four policemen, in an attack bearing all the hallmarks of Al-Qaeda.
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