Attacks raise doubts about Iraqi police

Iraqi police in this provincial backwater got a tip earlier this month that a suicide bomber was on the loose. They were even given his name, age and a description of his car.

With all that, they still couldn't stop him.

Four days after the initial warning, 19-year-old Ashraf al-Yas talked his way through a police checkpoint, drove his vehicle into a crowded farmers market and detonated his explosives. He killed 28 people and injured 72.

The attack raised questions about whether Iraqi forces are yet capable of protecting civilians from determined extremists as across the country, the Americans hand over primary responsibility for security to Iraqi soldiers and police.

The U.S. insists the Iraqi army has made great progress in improving its operational capability. But there are still doubts about efficiency, training and professionalism among police, who must bear primary responsibility for maintaining security in the cities.

U.S. forces only conduct occasional patrols in this northern Iraqi city of 220,000, settled mostly by Turkomen, an ethnic minority divided along religious lines here between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

Tal Afar's Iraqi army units have been shifted to more troublesome Mosul, a stronghold of Sunni insurgents.

After receiving the initial warning about a suicide bomber, Tal Afar police enforced a vehicle ban to try to keep the assailant off the streets. It's effective but can't be imposed for too long without severely disrupting daily life.

In the evening of Aug. 8, police lifted the curfew, and residents crowded the market.

At one point, a car carrying two men approached the police checkpoint near the market, witnesses say. Hajji Zainel, the local security chief, said police searched the car and allowed it to proceed.

Moments later, the passenger got out, the driver drove into the market and detonated the explosives, witnesses say. It appears the bomber carried a passenger to get around the ban on men driving alone, imposed to deter assailants.

The U.S. military said Iraqi forces should have done a better job of searching at the checkpoints.

But Zainel says he needs more equipment to do the job.

“The main problem we face is a lack of equipment that detects explosives,” said Zainel, adding that only two of the four checkpoints at the city's gates have such devices.

Maj. John Blankenhorn, a U.S. officer in the area, said the U.S. isn't planning to provide equipment to detect explosives but noted that Tal Afar police have put in requests to the Iraqi government.

On Wednesday, another suicide car bomber in Tal Afar injured 23 people, the latest in a string of attacks. Tal Afar's deadliest attack was a 2007 truck bombing that killed 152.

For now, the government is handing out cash to the families of victims.

Last week, a delegation from Baghdad, headed by the deputy prime minister's chief of staff, invited families of those killed or wounded in three recent bombings to the Ottoman-era castle in the center of the city to claim compensation.

They gave out $2,500 for someone killed and between $845 and $1,270 for someone injured, depending on the length of hospitalization.