A promising Iraqi province is now a tinderbox

Violence surged after U.S. forces handed security to the Iraqis. Now the Americans are stepping back in.

By Solomon Moore

Los Angeles Times

January 4, 2007

BAQUBAH, IRAQ — When U.S. forces killed the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, six months ago in a village near here, they hoped security would improve in this strategic province just north of Baghdad.

Instead, security has collapsed in Diyala province, which now ranks as one of Iraq's most troubled regions. Insurgent attacks have more than doubled in the last year. Violence has devastated the provincial police force and brought reconstruction to a virtual standstill.

Assassinations have claimed the lives of mayors, tribal chieftains, police officials and judges, including a Shiite Muslim member of the provincial council who was killed Tuesday. Many government officials here sleep on cots in their offices because driving home is too dangerous.

And Iraqi security forces have been implicated in so many abuses that the U.S. commander here recently gave his Iraqi counterpart an angry lecture, likening the Iraqi troops to an "undisciplined rabble."

U.S. and Iraqi officials interviewed in recent days blamed the sharp downturn on a combination of U.S. neglect and abuses by the Iraqi army. U.S. troops largely disengaged from security here for weeks at a time, they say, handing the reins to Iraqi forces who proved to be abusive and ineffective.

U.S. commanders are attempting a sharp change in strategy, hoping that a classic counterinsurgency campaign, combining reconstruction aid with a more active U.S. presence, can turn the situation around.

For now, insurgents here appear to have gained the upper hand. They demonstrated their freedom of movement last week by barreling a dozen trucks through the streets of Baqubah's Amin neighborhood, shouting militant slogans and brandishing machine guns and shoulder-fired rocket launchers.

The defiant show of force was similar to another insurgent parade caught on video by a U.S. aerial drone in November. Insurgents were seen hauling Shiite families out of their homes and executing them in the streets, U.S. military officials who reviewed the footage said.

Diyala is an area of fertile farmland, abundant water and untapped oil wells stretching north of Baghdad's suburbs and east to the Iranian border. Its population includes all three of Iraq's main religious and ethnic groups.

Of its roughly 1.8 million people, about 55% are Sunni Arabs. But because Sunnis boycotted elections two years ago, Shiites, who make up about one-third of Diyala's population, hold the majority of provincial council seats and control the local security forces. Kurds, mostly in northeastern Diyala, make up about 15%.

Until October, the main U.S. force in the province was the 4th Infantry Division. It largely followed the strategy laid down by top U.S. commanders in Iraq last year: Pull American forces back as much as possible and allow Iraqi troops to take the lead in fighting insurgents. U.S. officers here say that approach did not work.

"4th ID tried to keep a low profile after they handed over security to the Iraqi army, but that approach backfired," said an officer with the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, which now has responsibility for the province. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he was criticizing another U.S. military unit.

Under the 4th Infantry's plan, Army convoys stayed on main roads and rarely ventured into Baqubah's dense neighborhoods, military officials said.

"Iraqis told us that 4th ID drove in here with their Humvees and told them, 'If you don't shoot at us, we won't shoot at you,' " the 3rd Brigade officer said. "So the insurgents actually took over this place."

Making matters worse, Iraq's Shiite-dominated government appointed a provincial commander who U.S. military officials say was handpicked by the Badr Brigade, a militia implicated in hundreds of death squad killings in Baghdad. The militia is linked to Iraq's largest Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Under orders from the Iraqi Ground Forces Command in Baghdad this fall, the commander, Brig. Gen. Shakir Hulail Hussein Kaabi, and his 5th Iraqi Division started a campaign of what U.S. officials now describe as abusive raids and detentions.

The problems were so serious that Col. David W. Sutherland, commander of the 3rd Brigade, took the unusual step of lecturing his Iraqi counterpart during a mid-December briefing at Forward Operating Base Warhorse near Baqubah.

"Six weeks ago, the people of Diyala and Baqubah were disgusted with the disrespect and disregard the Iraqi army had shown them," Sutherland told Shakir through an Arabic interpreter.

"Bullying an innocent person is unacceptable. Taking things from houses is unacceptable. Taking cars or things from cars is unacceptable," he said.

"Before we send an undisciplined rabble into this fight, I will pull the plug," Sutherland told the general. "We are soldiers, not barbarians."

Since taking command of Diyala in October, Sutherland has increased the number of U.S. advisors traveling with Iraqi units and required U.S. approval for any Iraqi operation, in effect rescinding Iraqi control of the 5th Division.

Sutherland said that several joint raids convinced him Shakir was willing to change his tactics and adopt a counterinsurgency doctrine of proportional force.

"In this culture, the more you kill, the more enemies you make. The more you treat with disrespect, the more enemies you make," Sutherland said. "And we were able to show [Shakir], not subjectively but objectively, how that happened and what it created."

American commanders won at least a partial victory in late December when the government agreed to replace Diyala's police chief. The chief, Ghassan Bawi, had been accused of tacitly or directly supporting death squads in the province, according to U.S. officials, who had lobbied for months for his removal. Like Shakir, Bawi was endorsed by the Badr militia, U.S. officials say.

Detainees reported kidnappings and torture at the hands of Iraqi policemen, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. One of Bawi's most infamous underlings is known as Cable Ali, after his favorite coercive tool.

In an interview, Shakir said he had changed tactics and now used more focused operations. But he clung to the view that his main targets were Sunnis, not Shiites.

"The nature of the target is that they are all Sunnis," Shakir said. "All these problem areas are all Sunni, so our operations are all in Sunni areas. There are actually no Shiites left, because 8,000 Shiites have been killed or displaced."

But the shift in strategy may have come too late.

Diyala's Sunni politicians refuse to attend provincial council meetings until Shakir is stripped of his command, and the governing body has been unable to reach a quorum for weeks.

"The people don't trust the government or the security forces," said Deputy Gov. Awf Rahoomi, a Sunni. "The Shiites in control of security are not professionals — they were appointed on a sectarian basis. This has caused people to put more faith in the armed groups, which have become more powerful than the government forces."

The U.S. has spent roughly $220 million toward reconstruction in Diyala, but as winter temperatures plunge, food transport, electricity generation and petroleum shipments are beset by chronic delays, when shipments occur at all. Most Baqubah shops are closed and most streets devoid of traffic. Sewers are dysfunctional, spilling sludge across the refuse-covered streets and contaminating the water supply.

Many Iraqi contractors now refuse to enter the province, fearing for their lives.

Baqubah's Government Center building is regularly attacked by insurgents, but still serves as a nighttime refuge for government officials afraid to return home at the end of the day.

"The Government Center has become something of a dormitory," said Kiki Munshi, a State Department official who leads the Provincial Reconstruction Team.

Munshi said poor security and government bureaucracy had brought reconstruction to a virtual standstill.

U.S. military officials also complain that poor coordination among the military, State Department officials and the Iraqi government continues to hinder projects.

At a recent meeting between various local ministry representatives and Diyala's mayors and other officials, the politicians complained that Baghdad was not responding to their needs.

The mayor of Khalis said food and clean water were scarce in his area.

"The Iraqi army and the coalition forces arrested a lot of workers for our water treatment project," he said.

Baqubah's mayor said the Iraqi army had confiscated several fuel tankers from Oil Ministry drivers. The mayor of Khanaqin said at least 2,500 families had come to his city to escape violence elsewhere in the province, overwhelming services.

The officials seemed unable to agree on whether poor security was preventing reconstruction or whether reconstruction failures had caused security to erode. It is a conundrum that U.S. soldiers in the field also face.

While on patrol a few days earlier, Capt. Christopher Conley parked his armored vehicle in a Sunni neighborhood to attempt to gather intelligence from a tribal sheik.

"I want the coalition to have a good relationship with your neighborhood," Conley told the elder tribesman.

"We would like to cooperate with you," said the wizened sheik, who identified himself as Abu Mohammed. "But I can promise you that it will come to nothing because of the situation here. All the jobless men. All the closed shops."

"I want to fix the security situation," Conley told him. "I have money to fix things, but no one will come to help because of security."

"If you ask me, no one is ready to hear you right now," Abu Mohammed said. "If security gets better, we'll do whatever you want."


moore1@latimes.com