A Problem Province
Diyala province is a mess. A change in strategy in Washington may not be enough to make things right again
It was last year that Brig. Gen. Shakir Hulail Hussein al-Kaab, the Shiite commander of the area's 5th Iraqi Army Division, managed to enrage powerful Sunni sheiks here in a move that American military officials say haunts the province today: In mass sweeps, he rounded up hundreds of Sunnis who were later found to be innocent. In so doing, says a local official, "he drove the Sunnis into the arms of al Qaeda."
In the office of Col. David Sutherland, commander of the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division, two local Sunni leaders meet in the brigade's headquarters at Forward Operating Base Warhorse to raise their concerns. They have pulled out of Diyala's provincial council for the time being, pointing to the ongoing abuses they say the Sunnis are suffering at the hands of local police and Iraqi soldiers. They cite reports of soldiers destroying furniture and stealing jewelry in homes they raid, and torture by a Shakir subordinate nicknamed Colonel Cable, who has a reputation for beating prisoners on the soles of their feet-most likely, they add, at the police chief's behest. That chief, Ghassan al-Bawi, also a Shiite, "admitted that torture was going on," says a U.S. military official, "but he said they were only doing it to the bad guys."
Sutherland has brought the Sunni leaders here in the hopes of persuading them to rejoin the government. "We have more coverage on the holding facilities now," he reassures them. But they have other concerns. "When the Army was doing the raids in Sunni areas, they played cassette tapes-Shiite ceremonies on tape, songs of the Mahdi Army. This is the kind of army we're dealing with-very sectarian," says Hussein Abid al-Zubeidi, head of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party. Hussein is still a member of the provisional council, but he's now participating only behind the scenes.
General Shakir for his part contends that his soldiers are not targeting Sunnis-that there are simply few Shiites left to arrest. Some 8,000, he says, have been killed, displaced, or have fled. Sutherland sympathizes with Hussein. "The action of individual soldiers-in houses, showing disrespect-is unacceptable. The people became disgusted and disillusioned." Adds Sutherland of General Shakir: "His actions are indicative of his mental model. And his mental model needs to be changed."
Mind games. U.S. forces here are banking on an operation taking place even as Hussein and Sutherland speak to help change the minds of local Sunnis. It is "a very targeted mission," Sutherland explains to Hussein, to drive out Sunni terrorists in an overrun area outside of Baqubah that has not been touched by U.S. forces for three years. U.S. and Iraqi soldiers will then rush in aid in the form of blankets, water, and kerosene for local Sunnis in the area-classic counterinsurgency strategy honed by Sutherland in his years as an Army tactical instructor. Much hinges on the operation as al Qaeda continues its bid for the region: Recently, U.S. military officials here discovered an extensive network of tunnels and a cache of several trailer-size containers, stocked with rocket-propelled grenades, arms, American dollars, and over half a million rounds of ammunition. "It was more AK-47s than I've given the Iraqi police in the last four months," Sutherland says.