Iraqi Security Collapses in Shiite Area; Troops Return
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
First up this hour, a visit to a small town in Iraq that exemplifies the problems the U.S. military is facing as it tries to hand over security duties to Iraqi forces. Saab al-Bur is a Shiite town in a largely Sunni region west of Baghdad. Last month, U.S. troops handed over control there to Iraqi government security forces.
Within days, Saab al-Bur was engulfed in sectarian warfare. The U.S.-trained police force collapsed. Ninety percent of the residents fled. Well now the American troops are back.
NPR's Jamie Tarabay visited the town with a U.S. military escort and she sent this report.
JAMIE TARABAY: With the wind gathering dead branches and hurling them into the air, Saab al-Bur looks and feels like a ghost town. The loudspeaker atop the town's mosque broadcasts noon prayers, but the dusty streets are empty and the brick houses that line the edge of town are shuttered.
One place full of activity is the crumbling two story Iraqi police station. It's where the Americans are based. They were forced to return to Saab al-Bur after dozens of mortar attacks earlier this month drove out local residents and their police. Major Brandon Newton says sectarian violence came to Saab al-Bur like a plague of locusts.
Major BRANDON NEWTON (U.S. Army): You had a small two-week period where a lot of Sunnis were being sent into Saab al-Bur to kill Shias. Shias were retaliating, killing Sunnis.
TARABAY: The Sunnis, he says, could have come from anywhere. Surrounded by canal fed farms, Saab al-Bur lies 18 miles northwest of Baghdad. Nearby Ramadi and Fallujah are both bastions of support for the Sunni insurgents.
Major NEWTON: People here forget that we're only 20 miles from Fallujah. That's a nice (unintelligible) for a death squad to run here from Fallujah or Ramadi.
TARABAY: There were around 30,000 people living in Saab al-Bur on September 20 when U.S. troops handed over the town to Iraqi forces. Then the mortar shells began to fall.
By October 2, only 3,000 people remained. Major Newton said it was heartbreaking to watch people pack furniture into trucks, pile into cars and leave.
Major NEWTON: I think it's more sobering than anything to see just how fast, in one day, two days, this could all, just based on those folks who'd rather kill innocent people and try to kill each other, can take a city like this and just set it back.
TARABAY: And set it back they have. The U.S. military was working on 32 projects costing $5.3 million to improve Saab al-Bur. The U.S. troops paved the roads, set up water treatment plants and refurbished or built around 20 schools.
Walking along the barbed wire perimeter, Captain Dan Walker said his unit is now only trying to make the streets safe again.
Captain DAN WALKER (U.S. Army): Kind of like the Texas two step - two steps forward, one step back. Things are a lot better than they were.
TARABAY: There's still more to do. The U.S. troops are struggling to rebuild an effective local police force and Captain Walker says it's too soon to tell whether the Iraqi army unit that's just arrived is up to the task.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
TARABAY: Hovering Apache gun ships fire into the town. Insurgents are hiding in the houses. Unmoved by the cannon fire only a few blocks away, Jenan Felaya(ph) holds the hand of her young daughter as she describes the night she and eight members of her family left Saab al-Bur with only the clothes they were wearing.
Ms. JENAN FELAYA: (Through Translator) They bombed us. People were wounded. Our neighbor died. Our house is close to the canal. We just left one afternoon and went to stay with relatives in Kadhamiya.
TARABAY: She returned ten days later. Bookstore owner Erna Sata Abay(ph) never left. He lives next to the U.S. base so he felt relatively safe. Now he collects food rations from the U.S. military because all the shops are closed.
Mr. ERNA SATA ABAY: (Through Translator) The situation isn't normal. There's no movement. There's no oil, no gas. There are only a few people left in the area. Not even the Americans are in total control of this place.
TARABAY: But despite the lack of supplies, the eerie emptiness of the town and the lack of security, Abay says he has no choice but to stay.
Mr. ABAY: (Through Translator) Where will I go? I don't have money. I can't afford to rent another place. I'd rather die here in the only place I own.
Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.