Former US success story of Tal Afar falls to militants' alliance
IT WAS once the emblem of US military success in Iraq – the city where American forces defeated their adversaries twice. First they drove out the army of Saddam Hussein, and later the Islamist militants who rose up against the occupation.
Less than a decade later, the two US foes have joined forces to seize back Tal Afar, and the machine guns and armoured vehicles that American troops left behind to defend its new-found freedom are being used by the very insurgents they sought to defeat.
The arrival of the jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (Isis) in northern Iraq has brought on sectarian insurgency anew, and loyalists to the late Saddam have once again picked up their arms.
On Sunday, Isis jihadists, backed by local Baathist remnants from Saddam's old regime, overran Tal Afar, causing the exodus of most of the city's Shia community.
"It is Baathists from Tal Afar who enabled Isis to take over the town. They have a strong presence and are very well organised," said one senior Iraqi intelligence officer from the area. "This is the return of Saddam's men."
The officer spoke standing on the front line, eight miles from Tal Afar towards the Kurdish town of Sinjar on the Syrian border. He stood with Kurdish peshmerga forces who are now protecting the area, which marks the edge of the territory that Isis controls.
Dozens of peshmerga troops, heavily armed with rifles and machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks, manned the road. They waved down cars coming from Tal Afar and, afraid of suicide bombers, pointed their guns at the drivers, their fingers on the triggers if they failed to stop.
To the side, standing behind a dirt bank, peshmerga forces scanned the desert for signs of an Isis assault.
In the near distance, less than half a mile away, two US Humvees circled in the desert scrubland, sending up clouds of sand. "Those are Isis and other insurgents," said one peshmerga fighter, calling urgently to his commanding officer.
Another peshmerga fighter, manning a heavy machine gun, swivelled the barrel in the cars' direction.
Tal Afar is one of a number of towns to have fallen to the Sunni insurgents in recent weeks; however, its capture is of enormous importance due to its history as a symbol for what Condoleezza Rice, then US secretary of state, called the "clear, hold, and build" operation.
The Americans first arrived in Tal Afar, a mostly Turkmen town of Sunni and Shia Muslims, in 2004 to fight men loyal to Saddam Hussein. They took the town but then, after leaving it poorly defended, it fell again to Sunni Islamists.
In 2005, the US launched "Operation Restoring Rights", in which areas were to be purged of insurgents, but then rebuilt to win the "hearts and minds" of the locals. Eventually they were to be handed back to the Iraqi military.
More than 5,000 US troops were deployed to the city. They pushed out the insurgents and spent millions investing in the local security services.
In March 2006, President George W Bush held up Tal Afar as a "success story", in which one could "see the outlines of the Iraq we've been fighting for".
The remnants of the investment the Americans made can be seen driving from Sinjar towards the front line.
Amid the mountainous scrubland stand abandoned military bases that once housed American troops: huge castle-like structures surrounded by concrete bomb-blast pillars.
Peshmerga troops now wear the military equipment provided to them by the US during the war. Three of the men who accompanied me to the front line wore camouflage T-shirts with the words "US Army" emblazoned on the front.
But in the town itself, history has been reversed. Jafar (32), a former Iraqi soldier who fought alongside the Americans, said: "I know of many of the Sunni insurgents who are back. These are the same people who, when the Americans left Iraq, came to threaten my family.
"They published a list with my name on it and came knocking on doors in search of us."
Refugees who fled Tal Afar also confirmed that the "same men who were fighting against the United States are now fighting with Isis".
A commanding officer on the front line for Tal Afar said the Baathists and Isis were now one and the same.
"The Baathists who used to fight the Americans, today their name is Isis," he said.
The coordination between the Baathists and Isis is an alliance of convenience, residents said.
Isis follows a much more extremist interpretation of Islam than the traditional Baathists, but both are now hell-bent on ousting the Shia-led government of Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister. (© Daily Telegraph, London)