WASHINGTON — Two years ago, President Bush hailed Najim al Jabouri as a symbol of success in the battle to curb Iraq's sectarian violence. Today, Jabouri is a symbol of how uncertain that success is.
Last month, Jabouri quietly left Tal Afar, an ancient city near Iraq's desert border with Syria where he was the police chief and the mayor, collected his wife and four children and flew to safety in the United States.
"There was no other choice," Jabouri, 52, a retired Iraqi army lieutenant general, said in a recent interview that was translated by his eldest son, Omar, 21. "I had been serving my homeland, the Iraqi people and Iraqi soil my whole life. I decided I had to do something for my own family. I saw that their lives were in great danger."
Jabouri risked his life for three years working alongside U.S. and Iraqi commanders to maintain communal calm after helping to quell ferocious atrocity-fed fighting between Shiite and Sunni Muslims that was fueled by al Qaida in Iraq.
Never miss a local story.
His decision underscores the fragility of the relative calm that's settled on Iraq, obscuring the unresolved ethnic and sectarian tensions, political infighting and anger at the U.S. occupation, economic paralysis and continuing terrorism.
Al Qaida in Iraq's death threats against Jabouri were unrelenting. His wife and children were terrorized out of their Baghdad home and went to live under Kurdish protection in far northern Iraq.
The Interior Ministry, dominated by hard-line Shiites loyal to a pro-Iran political party, repeatedly tried to run Jabouri — a secular Sunni and a former member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party — out of his job as the mayor of Tal Afar. The ministry withdrew most of his bodyguards and relieved him of authority over local security forces.
Meanwhile, all but a handful of U.S. forces withdrew from Tal Afar and pulled out of the neighborhood outposts that were key to the September 2005 operation that drove al Qaida in Iraq out of the city and became the model for last year's U.S. troop buildup in Baghdad.
So when a Pentagon policy institute offered him a job in Washington, Jabouri jumped at it.
"I had no friends beside me, and the government left me facing al Qaida without anyone to protect me," he said, the stress of recent years unmistakable in his puffy eyelids. "I decided (to leave) after I noticed the number of coalition forces in Tal Afar were becoming less day by day."
Jabouri remains confident that Iraq can flourish as a stable democracy, but he said it would take years to become one. He expressed deep concern over a proposed U.S. troop withdrawal by the close of 2011, calling it too soon.
"Iraq is a big cake right now. Everyone wants the biggest slice, and they are just waiting for that opportunity," he said. "If the guard, the United States, is gone . . . they will take what they want."
Tal Afar was a free-fire zone when Jabouri, an Arab from the northern city of Mosul, became its police chief in the spring of 2005. More than 60 others had refused the job.
The 220,000 residents are mainly ethnic Turkomen, 70 percent of them Sunnis who lost power under the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government. Many joined the insurgency. Some were nationalists enraged by the U.S. occupation; others allied with al Qaida in Iraq and, joined by foreign radicals who infiltrated from Syria, attacked American forces and murdered local Shiites, who struck back.
Al Qaida in Iraq took over the local hospital. It emptied the schools. It left decapitated corpses in the streets. One young boy's body was rigged with explosives that killed his father when he tried to retrieve his son's corpse. U.S. troops came under constant attack.
"Life had stopped. Not even a single bird sat in the trees in Tal Afar because of the shooting," Jabouri recalled. "When I got to Tal Afar, people asked me, 'Are you crazy? Why have you come here?' "
Jabouri took over a force of 200 Shiite officers — 400 Sunnis had quit — who were too terrified to leave their headquarters in the Ottoman-era castle that dominates the city center; some were suspected of slipping out at night to participate in death-squad executions of Sunnis.
A U.S. commander and his 1,200 troops arrived about the same time as Jabouri, as did the local Iraqi army commander and his newly minted brigade of 1,200 men.
"All of us were new. We were all trying to figure this place out," recalled Col. Christopher Hickey, who commanded the 2nd Squadron of the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment, based at Fort Carson, Colo. "We met at the castle. You could tell he (Jabouri) was overwhelmed. You could tell he felt he was in a bum deal."
Hickey and Jabouri spent months rolling under fire through densely packed neighborhoods in Hickey's Bradley armored vehicle, learning the structures of the area's more than 80 tribes and working to earn their sheiks' trust. They struggled to bring old rivals together, escorting them to meetings on neutral ground with tanks and building their own credibility over endless cups of tea.
"I know how to talk to the Iraqi people," said Jabouri, who wears a 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment pin in his lapel. "The Iraqi doesn't talk with his mind. The American forces think the best way is to talk with the mind. No. You talk with them with the heart."
"After a while, the American officers found out that I was very honest with them. They found out that everything I told them was true," he continued. "We made a team."
That August, Tal Afar's mayor was fired as a suspected collaborator with al Qaida in Iraq, and Jabouri took the job.
As he and Hickey forged a close partnership, they came to discern the insurgency's makeup and to think that it might be possible to reconcile the Iraqi nationalists and crush the Islamists, many of whom were from Saudi Arabia and other countries.
Their efforts paid off in September 2005, when U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a house-to-house pincer movement that drove al Qaida in Iraq out of its lairs in the Surai neighborhood, the heart of the city's old Sunni area.
The operation began after a 12-mile-long dirt wall was built around Tal Afar. Suspected terrorists had been filtered out from tens of thousands of residents, who left Surai and were channeled along a concertina-wire pathway into temporary housing.
American and Iraqi forces moved into 29 outposts across Tal Afar, and Jabouri and Hickey helped launch a major reconstruction effort, working with Shiite and Sunni sheiks to fix damaged homes and businesses. Their confidence restored, residents began to return. Roads, schools, utilities and a Sunni-Shiite police force were rebuilt.
"Najim and I would go visit the schools," Hickey remembered. "He'd go in there and look at the kids and ask, 'Sunni or Shia?' And of course the kids didn't answer. He'd repeat it. And then he would shout, 'Iraqi!' And they would then shout, 'Iraqi!' He'd do it at the schools and at the police stations."
"There were a couple of times when he'd go out to a police station in a police car and he'd be attacked," Hickey said. "I was very upset, but he was very nonchalant. I'd tell him he was one of guys holding this place together. He was a very large target for them to kill. One of my main missions was to keep him alive."
"He's a hero, an absolute hero," said Hickey, 44, who's now based in Germany.
Slowly, violence abated and local government began to function again. Jabouri and his colleagues assumed greater responsibilities, and Iraqi forces began to operate alone, allowing the Americans to play mostly advisory roles.
Despite the achievements, Jabouri said, Shiite hard-liners in the Interior Ministry in Baghdad tried repeatedly to get him fired, a charge that Hickey confirmed. Hickey recalled an incident in which the ministry demanded Jabouri's resignation after Jabouri ordered a policeman to remove a picture of anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr from his uniform.
Hickey's unit left Tal Afar in the spring of 2006. Jabouri stayed, despite death threats against his family and him from al Qaida in Iraq. He moved them from Baghdad to Dohuk, in northern Iraq, where they lived under the protection of the Kurdish regional government.
President Bush marked the third anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion with a speech on March 20, 2006, in Cleveland in which he held up Tal Afar as a turning point in the war. He praised Jabouri's courage and said the United States was "proud to have allies like Mayor Najim."
Last year, the Jabouris' home in Mosul was blown up, and even U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's intervention with the Interior Ministry failed to halt the pressure on Jabouri to quit, he said.
Bombings blamed on al Qaida in Iraq still rip through Tal Afar periodically. The extremists, Jabouri said, seek to avenge their ouster from the city and are determined to reignite sectarian bloodletting in order to regain control.
He said that his "heart wanted to burst from my chest" when he and his family left Iraq, but he thinks that they'll return eventually.
"The future of Iraq will be good, but it needs time," he said. "We need more education, more election education, and we need to make the right choices."
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY