Two weeks ago, CBS 60 Minutes ran a segment called “Tal Afar: Al Qaida’s Town.” The story focused on an Iraqi city on the Syrian border that was allegedly “taken over by Al Qaida” and turned into a terrorist “base to train insurgents and launch attacks around Iraq.” (60 Minute’s transcript)
According to “America’s most popular news magazine,” the city of 200,000 was controlled by a few hundred “terrorists” who kept the townspeople imprisoned in their own homes until American forces invaded the city and set them free.
60 Minute’s anchor Lara Logan interviewed Colonel H.R. McMaster for the piece, quizzing him on the situation before and after the American siege.
When they first arrived at Tal Afar, Colonel McMaster said, “Life was horrible in the city. They (the terrorists) fired mortars indiscriminately into playgrounds, into school yards, across the marketplace to kill innocent civilians. . . . They would leave headless bodies in the street. They kidnapped a young child on one occasion, killed the child, put a booby trap inside of his body and waited for the father to come claim the body to kill the parent”.
None of what McMaster says can be verified nor is it consistent with reports that appeared on the Internet during the siege.
“Masked gunman led by Al Qaida roamed the streets of Tal Afar at will, publicly executing and kidnapping people,” the Colonel said. “They had kidnapping and murder classes that were attended by people on the best techniques.”
“Murder classes”? Does any of this seem even remotely believable?
Colonel McMaster continued, “The enemy showed the people who they really are. These are mass murderers. These are people who don’t respect human life.”
Time Magazine’s Michael Ware accompanied McMaster during the invasion and gives a graphic account of the fighting:
“Tal Afar was so dangerous that the soldiers had to run for cover the moment their boots hit the ground. You couldn’t even sit inside your tank without being shot.”
“The troops I was with were what you would loosely call the ‘tip of the spear.’ They were men who were selected to do the worst of the worst. They were to drive the stake into the dark heart of the Al Qaida stronghold.”
Ware recounts how the Marines surrounded Al Qaida fighters in the Sarai district of the city and were so close “you could throw a stone and hit them”. He added, “When we woke the next morning -- poof -- they were gone . . . Where an entire al Qaida society had existed, the troops found one body.”
Poof . . . total baloney.
The real story of Tal Afar is vastly different than Ware’s account and does not reflect his high-regard for American troops battling a civilian population.
The siege of Tal Afar began on September 2, 2005. It was the largest military offensive since the assault on Falluja a year earlier. In 2004 the US military attempted to take over the city but was rebuffed by heavy fighting. After that, the guerilla movement inside the city intensified anticipating a future attack. If there were foreign fighters, their numbers were small.
Approximately, 5,000 American and Iraqi troops sealed off the city, enclosing it behind a massive wall of sand with intermittent military checkpoints. The city’s people were forced to evacuate leaving them to fend for themselves. The Red Cross was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the exodus and was unable to provide shelter, water, or food for many of those who fled. Regrettably, thousands of people chose to stay and withstand the withering assault rather than expose themselves to the Shiite death squads that were operating in conjunction with American forces.
The city was then relentlessly pounded for more than a week by Abrams tanks, F-16s, helicopter gun-ships, and heavy artillery. At least four mosques were bombed and the Sarai area was hammered persistently with 500 and 1000 lb bombs. The Iraqi newspaper Azzaman reported, “Eyewitnesses spoke of ‘scores of casualties due to indiscriminate bombing.”
The pattern of assault on Tal Afar has been repeated throughout the Sunni triangle. Presently, Samarra is undergoing the same style of attack: a wall of sand has formed around the city, water and power have been cut off, and more than half of the people have fled. The siege of Falluja has become the model for “pacification” throughout the Sunni heartland although the level of destruction has decreased significantly. The application of overwhelming force is still at the very heart of the military strategy for victory in Iraq.
The siege was executed according to the normal protocols of massive round-ups and detentions, snipers deployed to the tops of buildings, and widespread bombing wherever resistance appeared.
The incessant battering of the city continued despite appeals from human rights groups, member states in the UN, and religious leaders from the Sunni community.
The widely respected Council of Nineveh issued a statement from the Brussels Tribunal that was ignored by the western media but is worth reiterating:
“The truth of what is happening in Tal Afar of the extreme use of force and the use of internationally forbidden weapons of poison gases, cluster, microwave, and napalm bombs, we demand that autopsies be carried out on the corpses of our sons who fell in the barbaric aggression to verify the inhuman practices carried out by the American forces and the (Iraqi) militias that participated in the massacre of Tal Afar.”
The use of banned weapons in Tal Afar was later corroborated by the Red Cross although it never appeared in the western media. They reported that “170 people had been made sick from “inhaling gases” and “curious poisons.”
Clearly, 60 Minutes did not feel that the use of napalm or other “chemical weapons” fit with their reverential tale of American bravery and liberation.
The idea that Tal Afar was an Al Qaida stronghold is patently absurd. The attack was part of a broader “scorched-earth” policy directed at pacifying Sunni cities. The allegations that there were hundreds of terrorists cannot be substantiated; suggesting it’s merely a public relations scam. Amazingly, “NOT ONE FOREIGN FIGHTER WAS CAPTURED in the siege despite claims that the city was a haven for foreign terrorists.” (Linda Heard)
Jonathan Finer of the Washington Post clarified what really took place in Tal Afar:
“Tal Afar was 70% Sunni Turkmen and 30% Shiite Turkmen. The Sunni Turkmen had thrown in with Saddam, and more recently to radical Islam. The Shiite Turkmen lived in fear of their lives.
So Kurds and Shiite are beating up on Sunni Turkmen allies of Sunnis Arabs. …It’s mainly about punishing the Sunni Turkmen for allying with the Sunni Arab guerrillas.”
As Finer points out, the real motive behind the siege was to root out sympathizers of the Iraqi resistance. That means that the US military was simply promoting greater sectarian violence to suppress the opposition. This is a vastly different explanation than the official version of a pitched battle with Al Qaida.
So, who should we believe, Jonathan Finer or 60 Minutes?
We already know that the Pentagon is committed to the policies of deception and misinformation. Their unwavering support for the planting of stories in the Iraqi press further demonstrates their belief that lies are vital to their overall strategy. We must assume that the 60 Minutes fits into this paradigm of psy-ops (psychological operations) directed at the American public to shore up support for the war.
The fact that 60 Minutes would stake its reputation on such a pathetic example of state propaganda, illustrates the desperation that’s spreading like wildfire through the political establishment to their colleagues in the corporate media.
The American people have already turned the corner on Bush’s bloody war. It will take more than a few fairy tales from 60 Minutes to win them back.
Mike Whitney lives in Washington state, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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