The United States Finds Few Non-Iraqis Among Insurgents
As President Bush continues to stress al Qaeda as the chief threat to Iraq's stabilitya reprised effort to establish a link between al Qaeda in Iraq and the 9/11 attackersU.S. military forces on the ground in Iraq are fighting a complex war in regions with vast networks of overlapping loyaltiesand few foreign fighters. Most members of al Qaeda in Iraq, say commanders on the ground, are local Iraqi outcasts.
"I can count them [foreign fighters] as a total I have engaged, dead or alive, in the 10 months I've been here on one hand," says Col. David Sutherland, the U.S. commander of coalition forces in the hotly contested area of Diyala province, an insurgent stronghold region some 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. There, Sutherland says, those involved in al Qaeda are largely dispossessed locals, not jihadists who have come from elsewhere. "The recruiting program is [that] al Qaeda may send five or eight individuals into a village. They recruit from those who have no power base, no place in society," including, he adds, former male prostitutes and the mentally ill.
Sutherland has launched roughly 200 operationsboth large and smalland says there has been some progress. This, he says, is due in large part to the local reaction to the brutal methods of al Qaeda-linked forces. Sutherland says he has seen growing resentment of al Qaeda among Diyala's residents. "People here are so disgusted and disillusioned by al Qaedano one here wants an Islamic state in Iraq," he says
Earlier this month, for example, in a small village outside the provincial capital of Baquba, between 20 and 30 gunmen went house to house in pickup trucks, shooting young men. They killed 29, wounded four, burned down several houses and cars, and left. They did not shoot women or children, and the hands of victims were not tied behind their backs, a common practice in militia death squad killings. "We checked with the people and they said [the gunmen] were al Qaeda members that had moved into the area recently," he says.
But the incident highlights the complexity of the situation in Iraq todayand the myriad interconnections among the country's citizens and tribes that, while rendering political solutions increasingly pivotal, at the same time can make them tougher to come by.
The presumed al Qaeda-linked forces were wearing Iraqi Army uniforms. Shiite militia members, both in the Iraqi military and outside, have in the past used such uniforms in carrying out sectarian violence in the area that is a mix of Sunni and Shiite tribesand is getting more complex by the day. Increasingly, says Sutherland, the province is experiencing a growth in the "Kurdish element" making their bid to "expand their voting rights, and their base" in the region. Rich in resources, at the crossroads of two rivers with sizable oil reserves, the region has a new "problem set," Sutherland adds. "How are they going to get along?"
Known as "little Baghdad," Diyala is one of the most diverse areas in the country, with a far different makeup than, for example, western Al Anbar province, a majority-Sunni region where U.S. military officials have lately touted an "Anbar awakening" (the teaming-up of Sunni tribal sheiks in the western part of Iraq with U.S. military forces against al Qaeda-linked extremists).