Iraqis in Tal Afar question Bush's optimism
Tal Afrar (Iraq), Mar 25: US President George W Bush held up the northern town of Tal Afar this week as an example of progress being made in Iraq but many residents find it hard to share his optimism.
Bush said this week that Tal Afar has become ''a free city that gives reason for hope for a free Iraq'' after U S-led forces freed it from al Qaeda militants in a 2005 offensive.
Although townspeople say there has been less violence since the assault, they share many of the complaints of other Iraqis watching sectarian violence tearing their country apart.
These days it is Iraq's security forces, drawn heavily from the Shi'ite majority, not Sunni Arab al Qaeda militants from nearby Syria, that make many people in Tal Afar nervous.
''When we stop at a checkpoint they ask us whether we are Sunni or Shi'ite. That is worrying. We are one people and were never divided before,'' said Fatma Mohammad Ali, 38, a teacher who is a member of Tal Afar's ethnic Turkmen Shi'ite minority.
US and Iraqi forces said Tal Afar was used as a conduit for smuggling in equipment and foreign fighters from Syria on the way to cities across central Iraq. In doing so, they subjected many townspeople to violence and intimidation.
Al Qaeda and other Sunni Arab insurgent violence has eased in Tal Afar since September's offensive but sectarian violence elsewhere in Iraq after the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra last month raised fears among many people of civil war.
''I say that Bush is 100 percent a liar because the city of Tal Afar has become a ghost town rather than the example Bush spoke about,'' said Ali Ibrahim, a Shi'ite Turkmen labourer.
It is hard to be sure who is behind violence that still troubles Tal Afar, 420 km northwest of Baghdad. A mortar round wounded six children playing in a street on Friday. Police said it was not clear who fired it.
Bush has been trying to convince a sceptical American public that he has a winning strategy for Iraq to counter fears that violence is spiralling into an all-out sectarian conflict. ''Thanks to coalition and Iraqi forces, the terrorists have now been driven out of that city,'' he said of Tal Afar.
''Iraqi security forces are maintaining law and order, and we see the outlines of a free and secure Iraq that we and the Iraqi people have been fighting for,'' he said. ''The success we're seeing in Tal Afar gives me confidence in the future of Iraq.'' Market bombings, roadside blasts and explosions are no longer the constant threat they were a year ago in Tal Afar. But there is still danger and the mood of many residents is grim.
A comprehensive sounding of local opinion was not possible.
But more than a dozen local people who spoke to a Reuters reporter on Friday said they had little faith in the future of their town, where the offensive fuelled sensitivities in an ethnically and religiously mixed region.
Sunni Turkmen Rafat Ahmed, 35, a shop owner said: ''As I'm talking now the Americans and the Iraqi army are surrounding my neighbourhood. If we leave our houses we could be arrested.'' The town's population of some 250,000 is dominated by Turkish-speaking ethnic Turkmen, about half Sunni Muslims and half Shi'ites. Most of the remaining 20 percent are Sunni Arabs.
The deployment last year of Iraqi troops, who were widely perceived locally as Shi'ite Arab outsiders, prompted the Sunni mayor of Tal Afar to tender his resignation in protest at what he described as a sectarian operation. The involvement of ethnic Kurdish forces was also a source of tension, local people said.
''Anyone who says Tal Afar is good and safe actually knows nothing because the reality is we are unsafe, even inside our houses, because we don't know when we'll be arrested,'' said pensioner Abdul Karim al-Anizi, 60, a Shi'ite Turkmen Some of the anger is being directed back at the U.S. forces that pushed out the militants.
''The situation in Tal Afar is deteriorating and the smell of death is everywhere. People never know why they are killed. They only know that the Americans are the cause of their agonies,'' said Hussein Mahmoud, a Shi'ite Turkmen university professor.