Author: Von Lunen, Kelly
Date published: March 1, 2012
Western Nineveh province, along the Syrian border, was a hotbed of insurgent activity in the spring and summer of 2005. The city of Tal Afar had become a haven for al Qaeda and Baath Party loyalists known for assassinations, beheadings and indiscriminate bombings. "They would order car bombs like it was pizza delivery," said Maj. Chris Kennedy, executive officer of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR).
A city of 250,000 inhabitants and three square miles, it was being used as a base to dispatch suicide bombers 40 miles to the east in Mosul. An average of six attacks a day occurred in the area of Tal Afar by the summer. The infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al Qaeda held the city hostage in utter fear.
Rooting out this terror network began with Operation Veterans Forward on May 18. The remote desert town of Biaj, a terrorist way station on the Syrian border, was taken in June. By Aug. 29, the 3rd ACR had killed 200 insurgents and captured 300 more in outlying areas.
ASSAULTING THE CITY
In preparation for the assault on Tal Afar, 29 patrol bases were established across the city. The battle began on Sept. 1, 2005. Each block was methodically cleared, with GIs calling in artillery strikes as they advanced. In a textbook maneuver, every house was searched with precision.
Within three days, the 3,500 U.S. troops plus Iraqi forces had largely secured the city. American units sustained six KIA and 52 WIA, but 163 al Qaeda operatives were killed and 295 captured. Fighting was officially declared over on Sept. 18. Mopping up continued for five more days.
Clearing and holding missions secured the western portion of the province. Sinjar, Rabiah, Zumar and Avgani were rid of fleeing terrorists. All told, Operation Restoring Rights killed 200 of the enemy and detained 850.
With precise intelligence, the 3rd ACR was able to reconstruct Tal Afar along with allowing for free elections. The entire campaign to free Tal Afar and surrounding areas from the terrorist grip cost the lives of 39 Americans.
Tal Afar earned the regiment and attached units a Valorous Unit Award (VUA) for one of the war's great success stories. Called "a case study in classic counterinsurgency," the 3rd ACR was rated the best at it in 2005. But as tank company Capt. Gregory Mitchell pointed out, "There is no decisive battle, no cordon-and-search operation that will solve everything. All we can do is shape the battle space for the Iraqi security forces."
Maj. Jack McLaughlin, then the 3rd's plans officer, also stressed that the tactical victory in Tal Afar was not necessarily a precedent for other operations. "It's a matter of scale," he said. "You'd need a huge number of troops to replicate what we've done here."
No matter, Tal Afar's mayor called the troopers "lion hearts" who "liberated our city from the grasp of terrorists spreading death and destruction, changing Tal Afar to a secure city flourishing with life ... Let America, their families and the world be proud of their sacrifice for humanity and life."
Col. H.R. McMaster, commander of the regiment's 4,700 soldiers, said it all: "It [the mayor's letter] is a moving tribute to our courageous, disciplined, tough and compassionate troopers."
The 3rd ACR ultimately served four tours in Iraq, losing 114 troopers killed there. It was awarded a total of five VUAs.