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Battling al Qaeda in Iraq
21/05/2007

Battling al Qaeda in Iraq

5/21/2007

By MELIK KAYLAN
May 21, 2007; Page A17

DIYALA PROVINCE, Iraq -- Saturday I witnessed a violent and dramatic illustration of how the Iraqi Army has, in places, begun to work effectively with tribesmen against determined al Qaeda insurgents.

The incident occurred some 50 miles north of Baghdad at a remote dusty village in Diyala province, which is now a kind of frontline between the two sides. We were there in the punishing noonday heat, with a rustic crowd on hand, to witness an emotional meeting between tribal chiefs in long robes and a lone, clean-shaven figure in a suit and tie -- Ahmed Chalabi. Mr. Chalabi, the elite Shiite politician and former exile, a controversial figure in the U.S., came to thank the elders for their courage and sacrifice.

[Photo]
One of many bridges targeted by terrorists in Iraq.

Until recently, Sunnis and Shiites had tilled the land together for miles around, intermarried and mutually inhabited a checkerboard of villages. A year ago, al Qaeda had forced its strategy of sectarian hatred on the area, purging the Shiites while executing Sunnis who resisted their authority. It remains one of Iraq's most volatile zones. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the sanguinary leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, had his headquarters in the area and was ultimately killed less than 20 miles away.

Suddenly hefty explosions shook the ground while automatic gunfire rent the air. We were under attack, and al Qaeda had chosen a perfect moment to ignite disaster. All their local opponents were there, plus Mr. Chalabi, a top Iraqi government figure known around the world.

Mr. Chalabi lives outside the security of the Baghdad's Green Zone, albeit in a well-defended series of cul-de-sacs. One of his official functions requires him to raise public support for Baghdad's security plan, so he likes to be mobile and takes risks to stay in touch with things. Abroad, he has been accused of everything from luring the U.S. and other allies into toppling Saddam to passing sensitive information to Iran. Among Iraqis he is highly respected.

At about 10 a.m. on Saturday, we had taken off across Baghdad in a convoy of a dozen white pickups and SUVs, some with mounted machine guns, on our way to Diyala. We passed through notorious neighborhoods: one infamous for kidnapping, another where street battles have been fought between Shiites and Palestinian gangs. Often there were miles of static cars queuing for gasoline. We passed by the old U.N. High Commission building, truck-bombed in 2003, now empty. We passed Saddam's giant, turquoise, egg-shaped "Monument to the Martyrs" of the Iran-Iraq war, a bright contrast to the faded saffron brick of Baghdad's peeling facades. Suddenly a sharp explosive sound went off nearby and Ali, the security chief shouted "go, go, go" into the intercom. Our convoy raced off.

Out in the country, cracked dry earth and chalky bare scrubland stretched away. An hour out, the convoy slowed almost to standstill and stayed that way. Never a good thing. Al Qaeda had blown up all the bridges linking Baghdad to Iran, and a mile or more of trucks waited to cross a makeshift mud-and-stone bridge across the Diyala river. A bulldozer helped us jump the queue by carving an improvised path. We passed some miles of mud-brick dwellings and arrived at a village square encircled by earthen ramparts with a T-55 tank, a cannon and a bunker embedded along it. We had arrived at the front line in the village of Dafaa. Nearby stood a long, low reception hall, and, just in front, a large tent with long tables for the tribal buffet lunch.

Mr. Chalabi entered the building followed by Al-Iraqiyya TV crews. An aging sheik, in black-checkered headdress and sheer ochre robe -- said to be the richest landowner -- came in and sat beside him. Much of his property lay fallow out in no man's land. He'd lost seven sons and grandsons to the conflict there. "We've had no support from the government since the fighting started," he said, "no one has visited us or asked what we need. We've been on our own fighting al Qaeda which gets money and arms from around the world. Only recently, the Iraqi Army has given us some soldiers and weapons, and that has helped very much, but we need more, much more help, money, arms, provisions. We ask that you pass this on to the government." Above his head hung a moonlit poster of the Shiite martyr Imam Ali on a white horse crossing a river. One sheik after another came in and repeated the same concerns.

Dafaa has perforce become an exclusively Shiite village, an international force of militant Sunnis having occupied the villages roundabout. They are led, according to locals, by Afghans who have forced farmers to give them their daughters in marriage and "made everyone look Afghani like them, with long beards." They decapitate doubters and float them down the river to Dafaa village. "No fish anymore," say the locals.

In wider Diyala province, wedged strategically between Iran and Baghdad, many of the Sunnis were in Saddam's security forces, and for a while the al Qaeda leader was a former Saddam army colonel, according to Mr. Chalabi. They consider themselves a last line of resistance to the Shiite continuum between Iran and Iraqi Shiites to the south, so they accommodate foreign Sunni fighters more readily than, say, the Sunni tribes in Anbar province who feel more secure.

In the last year, al Qaeda rolled up the front until Dafaa village lay exposed like an arrowhead surrounded on three sides. It served as the final redoubt protecting the last bridge open to vital goods from the north directly supplying Baghdad. Finally, some months ago, a small contingent of 15 Iraqi Army troops moved in with high-caliber armor and stabilized the front. "That's all it took," said the young lieutenant in charge as he showed us and the 20-foot earthen ramparts, "because we fight alongside the people." Listening to anecdotes and viewing bullet marks from snipers, we stood outlined on the ridge squinting across empty cracked fields. The nearest village shaded by date trees sat a mere 900 meters away. Our self-exposure proved foolhardy in short order.

As the buffet lunch got going, a soldier ran over and reported two pickups racing across no man's land towards us. He was told to report developments. He raced back saying that they seemed to be unloading mortars. This time, he was told to repel them. The opposition had no doubt seen all the ridge-top activity, the civilians, camera crews, berobed sheiks -- and responded briskly. The first high-explosive shell, later identified as launched from an 82mm heavy mortar, must have landed to the left of the village. It shook everything and blurred my sight. Our side opened fire with Kalashnikovs, perhaps some 30 fighters in all slithering up the slope, one standing on the skyline with a full machine gun while being fed the magazine-belt by his friend. The tank too thundered away. Then the APC cannon.

I lost my head somewhat and ran at the rampart to look over the top but was thankfully tackled and stopped. The visiting sheiks crowded into the community hall. Mr. Chalabi never ceased talking to the TV camera, demanding help for the village. The second shell landed closer and behind us and fine yellow earth-dust floated over us. The sheiks were herded outside as a direct hit would have killed them all. It seemed the enemy had hit the structure before, maybe even had its GPS coordinates. The chaos intensified, the fighters now ducking from incoming fire. It was frustrating not to see the full picture. Two U.S. choppers flew overhead toward the opposition. The third mortar detonated, quite close this time, perhaps some 30 yards to the left, behind shuddering mud-brick structures, making my clothing flicker in the blast and my breath drop out. The tank fired again. The sheiks ran around ascending their SUVs with help from villagers. I counted three shells in all but some say six landed. It was hard to tell in the confusion. Suddenly a shout rose up and the fighters danced up and down below the ridge and came running down to us laughing. They'd destroyed one of the targets, it seemed.

What about the other? "It's OK, it's OK," someone shouted to me, and everyone began firing into the air to the great anger of a visiting army officer. They could scarcely afford the ammunition. We later found out, though, that the combined sound of gunfire, added to by bodyguards, had impressed the attackers -- they apparently feared the presence of a much bigger force. They stopped, at least for now, which gave us the chance to leap into our vehicles, with Mr. Chalabi in his blue Parisian suit and poplin shirt pleading to the last in front of the cameras, before being bundled off to safety.

As we drove away from the village along the raised earth road, I looked back to see perhaps a hundred SUVs, a mile long, belting along behind carrying the elders. An Iraqi Army Humvee with mounted machine gun charged past us to the front. They'd been helping to guard the last bridge to Baghdad. But now, one felt, the villagers could guard it handily. They no longer felt isolated and forgotten by the world, as the television sets showed this night all over the Mideast.

Mr. Kaylan is an Istanbul-born writer based in New York.


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