Eye for an Eye in Tal Afar

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Critics and proponents of the surge can argue about how much the heightened U.S. military presence has reduced violence in Baghdad, but the brutal tit-for-tat killings in Tal Afar have made one thing clear. With some 90,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces converged on Baghdad, sectarian tensions have been uncorked far from the capital — and they're just not going back in the bottle. On Wednesday,local police reportedly handcuffed and shot over 50 Sunnis in the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar — site of a brutal U.S.-led battle against al Qaeda-led insurgents in 2005. The executions were apparently in response to particularly sinister bomb attacks the day before that saw an insurgent deliver bomb-filled food rations to a crowd, killing 63.

The killings come at a particularly sensitive time for the Iraqi police. After revelations that police forces have harbored death squads and kept secret torture chambers, the minister of interior was replaced last June, and in a recent attempt to purge sectarian partisans from its ranks, the ministry fired some 10,000 officers. Some saw a change in the right direction. U.S. generals cited examples of police successfully fighting off insurgents and gangs during the recent security push. And departing U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, in his farewell press conference Monday, said a recent increase in tips and cooperation from citizens showed that average Iraqis were starting to trust the Iraqi security forces. But brutal reprisals like Wednesday's by uniformed police officers threaten to derail that progress.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is at least making the right noises. He immediately called for a full investigation into Wednesday's killings. The Ministry of Interior ordered the local Tal Afar police to stay in their stations and sent reinforcements from nearby Mosul.

But can this stop the bloody cycle, in which Shi'ite leaders are struggling to regain control of their partisans who are still collecting on a Sunni blood debt? For the first year after the U.S. invaded Iraq, the Shi'ite community absorbed suicide bomb attacks on their holiest of places and during their most sacred rites without reprisal. Bomb after bomb, the Shi'ite leaders kept the mob at bay. But eventually, with no visible progress by the U.S. or fledgling Iraqi security forces to stem the drum beat of attacks, Shi'ite death squads were unleashed as a brutal counterbalance. The bombing of the Samarra Shrine last year escalated the reprisals until the Baghdad security plan showed the first reduction in sectarian violence. But unless both sides of the blood feud can be brought to heel quickly, even that relative calm may prove short-lived.