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TAL AFAR, Iraq — A string of bombings in this small but strategic city in northwest Iraq is stoking fears of a return to sectarian conflict and raising questions about a strategy of handing security in urban areas to the Iraqi police.
Those concerns have emerged as the top U.S. commander, Gen. David Petraeus, is considering whether to recommend a further drawdown in the 145,000-strong U.S. force after the July departure of the last of the "surge" troops sent here in 2007 to curb a wave of sectarian slaughter.
Since April, at least four major bombings have shaken Tal Afar, killing about 40 people and wounding nearly 150. The deadliest occurred Aug. 8, when a suicide bomber detonated a truck packed with explosives in a vegetable market in a Shiite district.
At least 20 people were killed and about 70 were wounded, police said. U.S. officials blamed the attack on al-Qaida in Iraq. Local authorities said the driver was a Tal Afar native named Ashraf Mohammed al-Yas, who had recently been released from detention by an Iraqi court.
All that has alarmed Mayor Najim Abdullah, who fears that the removal of American troops from his city and the deployment of Iraqi army soldiers to nearby Mosul have left his overwhelmingly Turkoman community vulnerable.
"The goal was to start sectarian violence with the car bombs," the mayor said.
Control of this agricultural city of about 220,000, with low, mud brick houses resting on a saddle between two low mountains, is critical to securing northern Iraq, where al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni extremist groups remain active.
Tal Afar sits in a vast, Mars-like sea of dust along the main route from Mosul to the east and the Syrian border 60 miles to the west.
Violence swept the town in 2004 and 2005, sending most of its residents fleeing to nearby villages.
In September 2005, however, 5,000 Iraqi troops backed by a 3,500-strong U.S. armored force drove insurgents out of Tal Afar. President Bush hailed the operation as an example that gave him "confidence in our strategy."
But the recent bombings have taken place at a time when U.S. commanders have cut the number of American troops patrolling Tal Afar down to a platoon, usually about 30 people. U.S. soldiers no longer man combat outposts in the city.
Iraq's government has also moved out a battalion of its own troops to secure Mosul, where Iraqi forces launched an operation last May to wrest control from al-Qaida.
Throughout the Iraq war, U.S. commanders have wrestled with the problem of suppressing extremists in one area only to have them reappear somewhere else.
"Whenever you feel comfortable that you've eliminated them in one area, they tend to re-emerge," Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, commander of U.S. forces in the north, said of the insurgents last month. "We'll never say that we've completed pursuing them because they may always come back."
Local officials fear the extremists are taking advantage of the drawdown to strike back. The officials lack confidence in the mostly Shiite Iraqi police to keep the militants from coming back.
"We used to depend mostly on coalition forces, but unfortunately the footprint of the U.S. has been reduced," Abdullah said, holding court outside his office in an old Ottoman-era castle.
"There used to be a whole brigade here and now it's less. Soon, these policies will backfire in Tal Afar and allow terrorists to come in," he said.
The mayor complained that the government transferred experienced officers from Tal Afar to Mosul without consulting civilian authorities here. Their replacements were unfamiliar with the city, he said.
"That only leaves three companies to secure the city, creating gaps and the terrorists were able to smuggle in car bombs into Tal Afar," he said. "The Iraqi government has made so many mistakes during the last operation, I want to resign."
But American strategy calls for removing U.S. and Iraqi soldiers from Iraq's cities once they have been secured and replacing them with Iraqi police — long considered the weakest of the security services.
"Frankly, we don't trust the (Iraqi police) one hundred percent," said an officer of the Iraqi army's 3rd Division, who gave his name only as Maj. Mowfaq. "When the (Aug. 8) bomb went off in Tal Afar, the police joined with the civilians to attack Sunnis. When we didn't join the fight, they called us terrorists."
The U.S. military task force that controls northern Iraq has about 24,000 troops responsible for a religiously and ethnically diverse region.
Relying on Iraqi security forces — including the police — to secure an area long-term is key to the American strategy.
"As the Iraqi units stood up over the past 18 months, they took over our bases," said Maj. John Blankenhorn of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. "We confirmed that they could operate in company and battalion strength."
Blankenhorn believes the suicide bombings are a strategy of last resort by militants who have been severely weakened since the 2005 fighting. The focus now is on tamping down ethnic and sectarian hatred to prevent revenge attacks.
"Security forces want to focus on the true fight right now, but they are forced into a two front war to stop reprisals in the population," he said.