News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqIraqi villagers battle to hold off Al-Qaeda

Iraqi villagers battle to hold off Al-Qaeda

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Sunday Times: This is the front line of the war with Al-Qaeda. In other parts of Iraq their fighters are like ghosts, using car bombs and remotely triggered mines to deadly effect but rarely revealing themselves. In Diyala, Al-Qaeda troops are seizing villages in house-to-house battles that have plunged the province into an unacknowledged war. The Sunday Times

Marie Colvin reports from Dojama, Diyala province, on the desperate battle to fend off an extremist surge

THIS is the front line of the war with Al-Qaeda. In other parts of Iraq their fighters are like ghosts, using car bombs and remotely triggered mines to deadly effect but rarely revealing themselves. In Diyala, Al-Qaeda troops are seizing villages in house-to-house battles that have plunged the province into an unacknowledged war.

Last week, about 200 Al-Qaeda fighters overran the neighbouring Shi’ite village of Sufayet and refugees streamed into Dojama with terrible tales. “An Al-Qaeda man shot my uncle in the street in front of our house,” said 10-year-old Abdullah Khaled, illustrating his point with his toy machinegun.

“Then a second one ran over him with a motorcycle. His head squished,” he said. Other boys in the village scampered up and down the dirt streets in mock gun battles. Everyone knew Al-Qaeda was close by.

“Al-Qaeda came at 5am,” said Shaema Muhammad, Abdullah’s mother. “They came to our house because my husband was always talking about how we have to defeat them. My husband escaped but they killed his brother and his cousin.”

Shaema, 35, and a neighbour ran with her seven children. They have taken refuge in the home of Zuheir al-Janabi, the local sheikh, with only the clothes on their backs. It is a fragile refuge – Dojama is mortared almost daily.

As we talked, a white pickup truck pulled up with three men in the cab and a thin woman huddled in the open back. Only her bright blue eyes were visible; she was wearing the dress Al-Qaeda enforces, a dirty black abbaya robe and black gloves. She was too shocked to speak much.

“Al-Qaeda came and they forced me and my husband to move,” she said. “Then they shot my husband. I’ve nothing now.” She joined the 80 refugee families Dojama is already supporting. Food is running low and no government rations have arrived for six months.

Janabi, 50, dressed in a black robe with gold-braid trim and a white keffiyeh headdress, climbed to the roof of his house and pointed across fallow vegetable fields to the Al-Qaeda front line behind date palms about three miles away. A mortar shell had just fallen and black smoke rose up above the trees.

American forces patrol the main roads but do not come into the villages. Even on the highways, the ferocity of the fighting is evident; huge craters left by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the roadside bombs used by Al-Qaeda, line the road.

Janabi and other local sheikhs have formed the Diyala Rescue Council, a provincial militia to fight Al-Qaeda, but they desperately need help. “Al-Qaeda came to Sufayet in pickup trucks,” said Omar Hamed Hamid, 25, dressed in baggy wool trousers, a wool sweater and a camouflage vest. His machinegun was slung over his shoulder.

“There were too many of them and my bullets ran out so I had to flee.” Seventeen local US forces are advancing through Diyala, where the games played by Abdullah Khaled and his friend, right, recreate the violence around them fighters died before Sufayet fell to Al-Qaeda.

The fighters in Dojama and the villages around Khalis have begged the Americans for weapons and ammunition but none has yet arrived. They went to Baghdad to plead with the government of Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister. He promised to send soldiers, but for now they are fighting alone.

The Diyala militia is not so far part of the Concerned Local Citizens militias – known as the Awakening movement in Iraq – which the Americans have used with great success to defeat Al-Qaeda in Anbar province in the west and in Baghdad, where violence has fallen dramatically.

Unlike the Awakening, which is made up mostly of former members of Al-Qaeda and Sunni tribes who welcomed the extremist group until it started killing those who would not adhere to its strict Islamic regime, Diyala’s sheikhs are both Sunni and Shi’ite.

“We decided that both the Shi’ite and Sunni are suffering from Al-Qaeda,” said Sheikh Ali Zuheiri, the local leader. “We needed to make one group together to fight this evil. We are fighting for our homes.”

The 28 sheikhs – 15 Shi’ite and 13 Sunni – meet to make decisions together. Zuheiri is Shi’ite; Janabi, Sunni. Their composition reflects the population of the province, almost evenly divided between the two Islamic branches. Shaema, a Shi’ite, has been given refuge with her family by Janabi even though he is a Sunni. Shaema’s husband is Sunni and one of Janabi’s three wives is also Shi’ite.

Although they are fighting together now, the religious divide in Diyala is the reason Al-Qaeda initially made inroads into the province. When Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) sent its fighters in the Badr organisation from exile in Iran across Diyala’s border. The Badr fighters started assassinating local Sunnis, mainly former Ba’athists or Saddam’s officers.

When Al-Qaeda moved in, it was at first welcomed by the beleaguered Sunni as a group of well-equipped, wealthy com-rades-in-arms. The Badr militia was overwhelmed and fled, leaving poorly armed Shi’ite villages defenceless. Many villagers pledged their allegiance to the more muscular Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, whose flags fly over village entrances today.

The sheikhs of Diyala are trying to restore the damaged fabric of a mixed province, where Shi’ite and Sunni rubbed along, if sometimes uneasily. “Al-Qaeda came under the flag of religion,” said Zuheiri. “Some people were brainwashed. This is not religion; these are criminals.”

He didn’t point out that across the date-palm front line, in the enemy ranks, were some of the village’s Sunni sons. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is led by foreign Arabs, but most of its foot soldiers are Iraqi.

When Al-Qaeda was chased out of Anbar and Baghdad last year, it regrouped in Diyala and declared the province the Islamic State of Iraq, to be run as an Islamic caliphate with Baquba as its capital.

Until earlier this year the province was entirely run by Al-Qaeda. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, was killed just down the road in Hibhib. The Americans finally retook Baquba in June.

Iraqis point out the dangers of leaving Diyala to Al-Qaeda: not only does it border Iran, but five highways run directly into the Iraqi capital and are used to smuggle in weapons.

Americans say they are well aware of the need to retake Diyala. Last month, Major-General Mark Hertling, the northern commander, launched Operation Iron Reaper to target Al-Qaeda there.

“We still have a hard fight,” Hertling said last week. “The rest of the country has seen increasing stability. We have not seen that level of decrease [in violence”>.”

As the US forces advance in Diyala, they have come across evidence of the shocking brutality of the Al-Qaeda reign. On Thursday, Hertling revealed that his troops had found a torture centre in a farm north of Muq-dadiya. Chains hung from ceilings and walls, an iron bed was still attached to a car battery to give electric shocks, and bloody knives and swords were left behind by the torturers. Twenty-six bodies were found in a mass grave nearby.

Al-Qaeda shows no sign of giving up easily, as the villagers of Dojama have learnt. Last weeka judge was shot and killed as he drove to work, and a suicide bomber struck a cafe on the banks of the Diyala river, killing young men drinking tea and elders playing backgammon.

Another suicide bomber blew himself up in Baquba among a group of men signing up to join the local militia, killing 15, one of them an American soldier. Dojama may have a long, lonely winter ahead.

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