Police Linked to Tel Afar Reprisals

Authorities vow to investigate claims of police involvement in murders of Sunni following Tel Afar bombings.

Police Linked to Tel Afar Reprisals

Authorities vow to investigate claims of police involvement in murders of Sunni following Tel Afar bombings.

Though the sight was gruesome, Khattab Majid had no choice but to examine the pile of dead bodies assembled outside Tal Afar hospital. He hoped to find six members of his family who had been kidnapped and executed by gunmen, according to neighbours.

“I will kill all Safawi Shia (a reference to Shia from Iran who are frequently accused of being behind attacks in Iraq). I will take revenge for shedding the blood of every innocent Sunni,” he declared, as he searched for his relatives.

Late last month, the Iraqi town of Tal Afar near the Syrian border witnessed carnage that even by Iraqi standards was extraordinarily cruel.

At least 182 people were killed and more than 200 injured when on March 27 two trucks, carrying bags of flour, exploded in a busy market in a poor Shia neighbourhood - the deadliest single strike since the fall of the former regime four years ago. The death toll rose as bodies continued to be pulled out under the debris of collapsed houses.

The bombing, for which al-Qaeda later claimed responsibility, then sparked a series of revenge killings. According to Duraed Kashmoola, the governor of Nineveh province, Shia militias in cooperation with members of the police blocked the road to the Wihda Sunni district south of Tal Afar and killed 60 Sunni residents, injured 30 and kidnapped 40, in retaliation for the bombings.

A small child told an IWPR reporter how he lost his family when Shia militants raided homes in the Sunni neighbourhood. Abdul-Qadir Khalil, just seven years of age, only survived because he was hiding under his bed when gunmen broke into his parents’ house. Before they had heard shouting and screaming from their neighbour’s house, then gunfire and silence.

The little boy said he heard his parents crying and begging for their lives. Several gunshots rang out, and the house fell silent. He stayed under the bed the whole night. In the morning, he crawled out and found the bodies of his parents and brothers piled up in the yard.

Eighteen policemen were briefly arrested in connection with the reprisal killings, but then released “to prevent unrest” according to the governor. Later, they were re-arrested.

Tal Afar, 68 kilometres northwest of Mosul, is home to about 220,000 people, both Shia and Sunni. The different groups used to coexist peacefully. Mixed marriages were common, and members of both communities lived throughout the town.

Soon after the overthrow of Saddam, however, tensions rose between the two groups. The then police chief, Colonel Ismael al-Yas, dismissed 300 Sunni officers, creating a Shia-only force. The move turned Sunni against the police and prompted many of them to cooperate with the insurgents. Which, in turn, led to frequent cases of officers mistreating members of the community.

The Sunni-Shia feud intensified when the town became a hotbed of Sunni insurgents, who used the place as a base to launch attacks on other parts of Iraq. At the same time, the Sunni accused the predominantly-Shia police of targeting them. As a result, the Tel Afar has become more and more ethnically divided, with Sunni and Shia moving to western and eastern sections of the town respectively.

Yet after American forces launched a large offensive against insurgents in the Tal Afar region last year, President George W. Bush called the town “a model of success”. Indeed, only a few days before the March 27 killings, Khurshid al-Doski, head of the 3rd division of the Iraqi army based at the Kask military camp near Tal Afar, had been complimented by the US military for his peacekeeping efforts in the area.

But the most recent security crackdown in Baghdad seems to have left other towns and cities, especially in the north, more vulnerable to insurgent attacks.

The scenes of devastation in the aftermath of the March 27 bombing were some of the most shocking since the US-led Coalition’s invasion.

A man was seen holding his wife’s head, which had been ripped off her body in the explosion. A father put the remains of his six-year-old daughter’s body on a piece of cloth: her head, the upper part of her body and right arm were all that was left. A dead baby, covered in blood and dust, lay under the rubble of a collapsed house, next to an old man who was still alive but unable to utter a word. Two brothers carried their dead sister, and four men wrapped the torn body of their mother in a blanket.

Those who witnessed the carnage stood by in shock, unable to move. There were burnt bodies and pieces of flesh everywhere. Many people were vomiting at the sight of these hellish scenes.

Amir Jawad, a Shia taxi driver, lost his wife and eleven children when their house collapsed after one of the truck explosions. “They (the Sunni) violated our honour, killed our children and displaced our families,” said Jawad, as he removed rubble from the wreck that was once his home. “They did what they did and now want us to keep quiet - but how can we? It would be a shame to leave one Sunni in Tel Afar [alive].”

The Americans flew in personnel to assist army, police and civil defence forces with the rescue efforts. The search for survivors under the rubble continued for days. Local hospitals, which struggled to cope with the number of casualties, had no option but to set up makeshift outdoor wards.

Lorries full of bodies headed for Mosul morgue and cemetery as people in Tal Afar, struggling to rescue survivors of the truck bombings, had no time to bury the dead.

A day after the bombing, residents took to the street calling for the dismissal of Tel Afar’s mayor, Brigadier-General Najim Abid al-Juburi, claiming he had failed to secure the town.

The mayor, who is also the chief of police, defended himself, saying, “We are in a battle with terrorism and have to expect everything.” He insisted that many attacks in the past had been averted. “God willing,” he added, “the insurgents will go to hell.”

Officials in Mosul believe that the insurgents who struck at Tel Afar are exploiting weak security at the Rabia border crossing with Syria. “We have called on government officials to tighten all border points and security forces should control Rabia,” said Khasraw Goran, the deputy governor of Nineveh.

Sunni residents of Tal Afar, meanwhile, say the Shia-led security apparatus is part of the problem. Hashim Ridha Talafari, a member of Nineveh provincial council, holds the police responsible for the murder of Sunni in the wake of the bombings. “Victims recognised 18 police personnel involved in executing Sunni,” he said.

Some Sunni residents were so enraged by alleged police abuses that they attacked officers, several of whom were seen being set upon with knives.

Wathiq al-Hamdani, the Nineveh police chief, confirmed this week that investigations are ongoing about alleged Shia police involvement in reprisal acts. The Iraqi minister of interior, Jawad al-Bolani, has also promised to investigate the claims.

At the same time, General al-Doski has assured locals that officers found guilty of involvement will be punished. “Policemen who abused civilians were arrested but later freed when people demonstrated, demanding their release, ” he said. “But they will be tried.”

This article has been produced with support from the International Republican Institute (IRI).
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