Following President Bush's speech at the City Club of Cleveland, several news outlets -- including The New York Times, Fox News, and National Public Radio -- reported without challenge or criticism Bush's example of Tal Afar as "a free city that gives reason for hope for a free Iraq." By contrast, The Washington Post reported both the heightened sectarian strife and an Al Qaeda resurgence in the city.
Following President Bush's March 20 speech at the City Club of Cleveland, several news outlets -- including The New York Times, Fox News, and National Public Radio -- reported without challenge or criticism Bush's citation of Tal Afar as an example of "a free city that gives reason for hope for a free Iraq." By contrast, despite Bush's highly positive description of the efforts by U.S. troops to rid the city of insurgents and restore stability, The Washington Post reported that Tal Afar is currently experiencing both heightened sectarian strife and an Al Qaeda resurgence.
In his speech, Bush spoke at length about Tal Afar, a city located in the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh, which he described as liberated from insurgent control. He noted that the U.S. military had left the city in the hands of Iraqi security forces in 2004 after ridding it of insurgents, only to see those insurgents return several months later. He then told the city club audience of a 2005 offensive in which U.S. forces took back control of the city, but, in this case, followed their military operations with efforts to re-establish civil institutions, hold elections, and maintain security. Bush asserted that this "strategy is working" and described the current conditions in the city:
BUSH: With their city now more secure, the people of Tal Afar are beginning to rebuild a better future for themselves and their children.
See, if you're a resident of Tal Afar today, this is what you're going to see: You see that the terrorist 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. You see the electricity and water service restored throughout the city. You see a police force that better reflects the ethnic and religious diversity of the communities they patrol. You see markets opening, and you hear the sound of construction equipment as buildings go up and homes are re-made. In short, you see a city that is coming back to life.
In a March 21 article on the speech, New York Times staff writer Elisabeth Bumiller reported Bush's Tal Afar narrative, including his positive depiction of the city today. But while she noted military analysts' position that the 2005 Tal Afar offensive "would be difficult if not impossible to replicate in other parts of Iraq," she also reported that neither these analysts nor the correspondents reporting from the city "dispute Mr. Bush's version of events":
Military analysts do not dispute Mr. Bush's version of events, and correspondents on the ground say that the security situation in Tal Afar is significantly better than it was before the military operation last fall.
In a March 21 article, "An Iraq Success Story's Sad New Chapter," Washington Post staff writer Peter Baker similarly noted military experts' skepticism that the Tal Afar strategy could be employed elsewhere in Iraq. But unlike Bumiller, Baker quoted one expert voicing concerns that insurgents are returning to the city:
The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment "did a wonderful thing" in retaking Tall Afar, said Ahmed Hashim, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College who advised the regiment on counterinsurgency and cultural tactics. But Hashim, who wrote a book on the Iraqi insurgency that is being published next week, said he doubts that the example is readily transferable to the rest of Iraq, in part because of the weakness of the central government in Baghdad.
Hashim said he has also seen indications lately that the insurgents have begun "seeping back in" to Tall Afar now that the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment has rotated home and been replaced by another Army unit. And given the deep ethnic and sectarian divides in Tall Afar, he said, it is quite possible that the city could succumb to civil war, along with the rest of the country.
Further, Baker noted that Post correspondents who recently interviewed residents of Tal Afar have noted "continuing anxiety in the streets" stemming from new insurgent attacks and sectarian clashes:
A Washington Post employee interviewing residents of Tall Afar found continuing anxiety in the streets. "Al-Qaeda has started to come back again," said Jaafar al-Khawat, 33, a tailor. "They have started to kill Shiites and Sunnis who cooperate with the Americans. Last Wednesday, they killed a truck driver because he worked with the Americans."
Yasir al-Efri, 23, a law student at Mosul University, said al-Qaeda pamphlets began appearing on the biggest mosque in Tall Afar in the past two months claiming credit for attacks. "The Tall Afar mission failed," he said. "The city will turn back to how it was before the battle within two months. The Americans are busy putting cement barriers and barbed wire around their bases and no one is taking care of the infrastructure."
[Nassir] Sebti, the mechanic, was more fearful of sectarian conflict. "People now are afraid to send their kids to school," he said. "I have to take my son to and from the school every day. There are two gangs in Tall Afar now that specialize in kidnapping children. Police can do nothing against that."
Several other news outlets highlighted Bush's use of the Tal Afar example without providing, as Baker did, reports that undermine Bush's claims. For instance, on Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, chief White House correspondent Carl Cameron uncritically reported Bush's portrait of Tal Afar as "a model of Iraqi recovery and hope," an "example of success," and a place where Iraqis currently "live peacefully." Host and Fox News Washington bureau managing editor Brit Hume noted that the president had cited the city as "a model of security in the new Iraq." And national security correspondent Bret Baier reported that, according to U.S. commanders, "Iraqi police now patrol its streets, and the markets and schools are open and bustling -- a big change." Further, during the panel segment of the show, Roll Call executive editor Morton M. Kondracke described Tal Afar as "a largely peaceful place."
Similarly, on NPR's All Things Considered, host Robert Siegel reported that Bush had "pointed to the pacification of the northern city of Tal Afar" in his speech. He said that Bush "told the Cleveland audience, 'If you were residents of Tal Afar, you would now see a different city,' " before airing Bush's wholly positive depiction of current conditions there. But at no point did Siegel challenge Bush's assertions on the conditions in the city.
From the March 20 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:
CAMERON: Mr. Bush singled out the northern Iraq city of Tal Afar as an illustration of successfully changing tactics and progress. In 2004, U.S. troops cleaned out a terrorist stronghold in Tal Afar and left. Soon after, insurgent atrocities resumed.
BUSH: Terrorists kidnapped a young boy from the hospital and killed him. And then they booby trapped his body and placed him along the road, where his family would see him. And when the boy's father came to retrieve his son's body, he was blown up.
CAMERON: But last year, the coalition adjusted its tactics and began including Iraqi forces in what it calls a "clear, build, and hold" tactic to stabilize Tal Afar and other communities.
BUSH: Iraqi and coalition forces would clear a city of the terrorists, leave well-trained Iraqi units behind to hold the city, and work with local leaders to build the economic and political infrastructure Iraqis need to live in freedom.
CAMERON: Since then, the president says, Tal Afar has become a model of Iraqi recovery and hope.
BUSH: The story of Tal Afar shows that when Iraqis can count on a basic level of safety and security, they can live together peacefully.
CAMERON: The president acknowledged that in the short run, there will be more sacrifice and challenge ahead in Iraq. But aides say he remains undaunted by public doubts and the dismay his critics often express at Mr. Bush's optimism, arguing that Tal Afar is not the only example of success ongoing in Iraq and proof that it's headed in the right direction -- Brit.
HUME: Carl, thank you. As the president indicated, Tal Afar has, as he says, come a long way from a town run by terrorists to a model of security in the new Iraq. The U.S. colonel behind the transformation tells Fox News Pentagon correspondent Bret Baier how that success story unfolded.
BAIER: Tal Afar, Iraq, sits just 35 miles from the Syrian border, and up until today, you didn't hear much about it. U.S. commanders say Iraqi police now patrol its streets and the markets and schools are open and bustling -- a big change.
KONDRACKE: But we made a horrible mistake in Tal Afar in September of 2004. We cleared the terrorists out, then we let them back in basically, and they beheaded all the people who -- you know, lots of people who had been our allies, then we had to go do it all over again. But now, we've learned something and Tal Afar is a -- is a largely peaceful place.
From the March 20 edition of NPR's All Things Considered:
SIEGEL: President Bush says he has confidence in our strategy in Iraq. The president went to Ohio and spoke to the City Club of Cleveland, where he took questions from the audience. His mission was to rebut the widespread impression of violence escalating into an Iraqi civil war. Over the weekend, former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said Iraq is already in a state of civil war, something the administration strongly denies. President Bush says there are clear signs of progress in Iraq. He pointed to the pacification of the northern city of Tal Afar. As the president related it, Tal Afar was cleared once of insurgents, but then, after U.S. forces withdrew, the insurgency returned.
BUSH [clip]: We recognized the problem, and we changed our strategy. Instead of coming in and removing the terrorists and then moving on, the Iraqi government and the coalition adopted a new approach called "clear, hold, and build."
SIEGEL: Mr. Bush spoke of maintaining patrols in Tal Afar, of training Iraqi security forces, of being determined to keep the city out of rebel hands. He told the Cleveland audience, "If you were residents of Tal Afar, you would now see a different city."
BUSH [clip]: You see that the terrorists who once exercised brutal control over every aspect of your city have 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. You see the electricity and water service restored throughout the city. You see a police force that better reflects the ethnic and religious diversity of the communities they patrol. You see markets opening, and you hear the sound of construction equipment as buildings go up and homes are re-made. In short, you see a city that is coming back to life.
MELISSA BLOCK (co-host): NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea is traveling with the president. He joins us from the filing center in Cleveland. And, Don, this speech today, obviously coinciding with the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it comes at a time when the president's poll numbers are very low. What do you make of his use of the example of Tal Afar in this speech?
GONYEA: He's really trying to broaden the view that Americans have of the situation in Iraq, beyond the bombings, beyond the violence that they are seeing in Baghdad and elsewhere. He did acknowledge, though, that right now, it is the story of one city and not the story of Iraq as a whole. It remains to be seen if Americans really do look at this city and start to change their view of the mission there.