Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A Slaughter at Tal Afar and the Challenge to the Maliki Government

Tuesday, March 27, 2007, Sunni insurgents detonated two truck bombs in Tal Afar, slaughtering and injuring hundreds of innocent Shia civilians. Shias responded with a slaughter of their own. And as we watch how this incident is handled by the Maliki Government, it will tell us much about the government's ability to forge a government of law and justice – one that exists for the benefit of all of its citizens, not merely Shias. Maliki has made recent overtures to the Sunnis to bring them into the fold and to convince them to stop supporting the insurgency. See here. How Maliki handles the challenge posed by the recent incidents in Tal Afar will will directly affect how the Sunnis respond to his overtures.

Tal Afar was a Sunni insurgent stronghold until an offensive by U.S. and Iraqi troops in September 2005, when militants fled into the countryside without a fight. The real problems in Tal Afar began yesterday with two truck bombings, presumably by al Qaeda affiliated terrorists:

[The two truck bombs in] Tal Afar on Tuesday that killed 80 people and wounded 185. Al-Douski said one of the trucks exploded after the driver lured people in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood to the site by telling them he was distributing free flour from a humanitarian organization. The bombing caused surrounding buildings to collapse, leaving huge piles of concrete and bricks dusted with white flour.

Videotaped footage from the scene was broadcast Wednesday night showing a man dead in the front seat of his car. Men and women carried the limp bodies of children powdered with flour. Others dug through the rubble with their bare hands in a search for survivors.

In the wake of this craven attack on innocent civilians, some Shias reacted by slaughtering innocent Sunnis.
Shiite militants and police enraged by deadly truck bombings went on a shooting rampage against Sunnis in a northwestern Iraqi city Wednesday, killing as many as 70 men execution-style and prompting fears that sectarian violence was spreading outside the capital.

The killings occurred in the mixed Shiite-Sunni city Tal Afar, which had been an insurgent stronghold until an offensive by U.S. and Iraqi troops in September 2005, when militants fled into the countryside without a fight. Last March, President Bush cited the operation as an example that gave him "confidence in our strategy."

The gunmen roamed Sunni neighborhoods in Tal Afar through the night, shooting at residents and homes, according to police and a local Sunni politician. Witnesses said relatives of the Shiite victims in the truck bombings broke into Sunni homes and killed the men inside or dragged them out and shot them in the streets.

Gen. Khourshid al-Douski, the Iraqi army commander in charge of the area, said 70 were shot in the back of the head and 40 people were kidnapped. A senior hospital official in Tal Afar, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns, said 45 men were killed.
The reaction of the Maliki government so far is appropriate.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office ordered an investigation and the U.S. command offered to provide assistance.

Ali al-Talafari, a Sunni member of the local Turkomen Front Party, said the Iraqi army had arrested 18 policemen accused in the shooting rampage after they were identified by Sunni families. Shiite militiamen also took part, he said.
Read the story here. This is one to monitor closely. How this plays out will tell us much about the viability of Maliki government. Maliki would be well served by inviting neutral Sunnis to observe the investigation. If the Sunnis perceive that there is a real and thorough investigation of the Shias who took part in this incident, and if the Sunni's perceive that justice is being served by those who took part in this slaughter being held accountable, then mark it in the books that the Maliki government may yet provide for a stable Iraq.

Update: Recent reports from the NYT are not promising:
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki immediately ordered an investigation into the killings. Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani told the government-run television channel Iraqiya on Wednesday that the government would “take legal action” against the 18 police officers who had been arrested and accused of involvement in the massacre, in which at least 70 people were killed.

But on Thursday, officials in Nineveh Province, where the attacks occurred, said the police officers had been held only briefly by the Iraqi Army and released.

Nineveh’s governor, Durad Kashmul, said at a news conference that the the army had freed the policemen “to deter strife” after a street demonstration demanding their release, Reuters reported.

Husham al-Hamdani, the head of the provincial security committee, confirmed to The Associated Press that the officers had been freed but gave no reason. Repeated calls to the spokesmen for the Iraqi military command went unanswered, and an envoy from Prime Minister Maliki who visited Tal Afar said he could not confirm or deny the report that the policemen had been released.
Update: Fox News is reporting that the Iraqi policeman suspected of involvment in the reprisal attack have been rearrested by the Iraqi Army. It was on cable and I have no site.

Update: This report is from Bill Rogio at Fourth Rail
The toll from Tuesday's suicide attack in the northern city of Tal Afar has risen to 152 killed and 347 wounded. This is the single most deadly suicide attack in Iraq since al Qaeda started its suicide campaign inside Iraq in the summer of 2003. Over 100 homes were destroyed in the Tal Afar attack. Fourth-seven were were killed in the reprisal killings by militia and off duty policemen, not the 70 initially reported. The Niwena provincial government has re-arrested the policemen involved in the attacks. A representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani warned the Tal Afar bombings could lead to a civil war, and condemned the attacks on civilians nationwide.

Update: Also from Bill Rogio at Fourth Rail:

The Iraqi Army moved in to restore security, and the policemen were arrested. Al Qaeda was able to succeed in provoking the reprisal in Tal Afar, but the silver lining is the response from the Iraqi Army and the government, which reacted quickly and independently to restore order.

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