NAQUIB, Iraq—Flying several hundred feet over the Diyala River basin in eastern Iraq, it's not difficult to see why one government leader here calls it a disaster area. Shattered remains of houses dot the landscape, both over the brown and dusty desert areas and the lush, green river basins that have earned this area the title "breadbasket of Iraq."
The destroyed homes are the result of one of Al Qaeda in Iraq's latest strategies—converting homes into bombs, or "house-borne improvised explosive devices," as they've been dubbed. It's a tactic particular to this province, which is a combustible mix of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish residents.
Over the past year, some 60 dwellings were destroyed by AQI. Many were demolished as fighters fled when U.S. and Iraqi Army units bore down on their positions. AQI fighters also conceal mines and IEDs in the lush palm and date groves around the area. Two more rigged homes were found in the past three weeks, says Army Lt. Col. Matthew Anderson, who commands the 2nd Battalion 8th Field Artillery Regiment. Anderson, who toured the area by helicopter, called the destruction tragic.
And the new tactics have not escaped the notice of the central government in Baghdad. "Diyala is like a disaster area in parts south of Baquba. Some villages have been completely leveled—it's like it was hit by an atomic bomb," says Hazim Muhammad Salman, who represents Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in Diyala province. Hazim who, like many Iraqis, uses only his first name, says the problem is compounded when families who fled the area return to find their homes nothing but heaps of rubble.
Sitting in his office, passing around a box of coconut-covered dates, he explains that the families need to return soon to harvest the local date groves. IEDs buried in the groves have understandably kept many farmers out.
In response to the dozens of households moving back to the area, local Iraqi reconciliation committees have devised a new strategy. Iraqi and coalition teams will de-mine the areas where fighting has taken place so that residents can return. Then, some of the sons from returning families will be hired as security guards, with a guaranteed paycheck for several months. This has the dual impact of employing returning residents and making the area more difficult for AQI to re-establish itself.
"The area is in decay because of all the fighting and it clearly needs help. The issue is creating lasting solutions," says Col. Burt Thompson, who commands the 25th Infantry Division's 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, and the U.S. commander with responsibility for all of Diyala province. "What's encouraging here is that Iraqis are moving to clear these areas of explosives left by AQI, and they are moving to find their own ways to get residents to return."