MELISSA BLOCK, host:
In the city of Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq, Shiites enraged by yesterday's massive truck bombings in markets there exacted revenge against Sunni residents. Overnight, gunmen murdered some 60 people in Sunni neighborhoods. Eighteen people have been taken into custody in connection with those killings, some of those detained are said to be Shiite policemen.
A year ago, President Bush described Tal Afar as a success story after U.S. and Iraqi forces rooted out insurgents there for a second time. He called Tal Afar a free city that gives reason for hope for a free Iraq.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: See, if you're a resident of Tal Afar today, this is what you're going to see. You see that the terrorists who once exercised brutal control over every aspect of your city has been killed, or captured, or driven out, or put on the run. You see your children going to school and playing safely in the streets.
BLOCK: Reporter Moni Basu of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is embedded with forces from Georgia's Army National Guard just outside Tal Afar. She says the recent attacks have shattered a period of relative calm there, but it's unclear why the situation has deteriorated.
Ms. MONI BASU (Reporter, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution): There is a lot of speculation about what's happening here. One idea is that because of the clampdown in the Baghdad area that the insurgency maybe moving out to other cities, in the Tal Afar. Even though we're very far north of Baghdad, this is a city that is just 60 miles from the Syrian border. That even as far north as Tal Afar we're feeling the effects of that clampdown in Baghdad.
BLOCK: The mayor of Tal Afar told you in an interview a couple of weeks ago that Tal Afar's calm could easily revert to rivers of blood. That was his phrase. Do you think his prediction is coming true?
Ms. BASU: Well, yes. He told me that in the context of he sees his city as very much as President Bush described it, as a litmus test for all of Iraq. If the success here cannot hold, then what is it bode for bigger, more ethnically mixed cities such as Baghdad, for instance.
And the mayor here has been writing letters to President Bush, begging him not to withdraw U.S. soldiers from the area. He firmly believes that if U.S. soldiers are pulled out, that his city, as you quoted him, will turn into rivers of blood. But obviously that has happened even with the presence of U.S. troops here.
BLOCK: When you hear the president's words from one year ago, do you think that rosy assessment was overly optimistic, has the situation really taken a serious turn for the worse in the last year?
Ms. BASU: Well, it's not that Tal Afar has been completely free of violence. I think that the description that we heard from President Bush of this area was perhaps a little bit too optimistic. There were bombings here last fall and there are improvised explosive devices, small arms fire, violent incidents that take place quite often.
It is true that Tal Afar has been a much safer city than other areas of Iraq, but Tal Afar is - it's a predominantly Turkoman, ethnically split in two. It's about 60 percent Sunni, 40 percent Shia. And the city is pretty divided, and people know that they are not free from the sectarian violence.
BLOCK: Well, what's the economic situation, and how successful have efforts been to rebuild Tal Afar?
Ms. BASU: Well, that's been a serious issue raised by the mayor here. He feels that the money that he wants from the central government in Baghdad for reconstruction efforts has not flowed as freely as he had hoped. And if you drive around the city, you can see the evidence that mortars fell like rain here just a few months ago.
There are many, many crumbled buildings, buildings that need to be rebuilt. The mayor says he's waiting for $33 million to come in that was promised to him by the Baghdad government that he has yet to see.
So it's quite obvious that it's a city that seen a lot of bloodshed in the past, and hopefully what we've seen this weekend and early this week is not the start of a new trend here.
BLOCK: Given the sectarian violence that you have seen in the last few days, are U.S. forces responding differently than they have been?
Ms. BASU: Yes. The main U.S. Army regiment that's here, it's the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, they have sent in several patrols of soldiers into the city. The commander of that unit, Colonel Frost, is spending the night tonight in Tal Afar at the castle where the mayor's office and the city council offices are.
It's sort of divides the city in two. The Shias live on one side, the Sunnis live on the other. And the U.S. forces have been going in all day long from this space just a few miles outside of Tal Afar. They've been going in to patrol the city and working with the Iraqi army and Iraqi police to help calm the situation.
BLOCK: Moni Basu is a reporter with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She spoke with us from Tal Afar, Iraq. Thanks very much.
Ms. BASU: Thank you.
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