By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 6, 2006
ABU SAYDAH AL-SAGHIR, Iraq -- One look at the charred and desolate street, empty but for armed men, told Capt. Chris Turner that what he feared was true: A recent spate of deadly sectarian warfare had driven almost all the families from a mud-brick village where for months he'd worked to broker peace between wary Sunni and Shiite tribes.
"What's going on? Where's everybody at?" Turner asked a small group of Iraqi soldiers and policemen sitting around a makeshift roadblock last Tuesday.
"They left," said one of the soldiers, who wore a head wrap, an AK-47 assault rifle slung over his back. "They were scared."
Three days earlier, rising friction between Sunni and Shiite tribes had spiraled out of control in this corner of Iraq's eastern Diyala province. At least five civilians died in the village, including three women, after fighting broke out between groups armed with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and explosives, according to witnesses and U.S. and Iraqi officials. A village mosque was bombed and homes and workplaces burned, leading to an exodus along religious lines, they said.
The fighting here follows a string of tit-for-tat sectarian killings that began in mid-July, unraveling a fragile calm that U.S. troops had helped enforce among a group of villages tucked among palm groves and canals in this mixed Sunni and Shiite region north of Baqubah.
"There's a lot of frontier justice now," said Turner, 32, an armor officer from Colorado Springs. "Instead of resolving things through a council of sheiks, they're using violence," he said after watching a man drive a horse cart piled with furniture and rugs out of town. A boy on a little white donkey rode beside him.
Days patrolling rival villages with Turner and his soldiers revealed the grass-roots schisms emerging six months after the February bombing of Samarra's gold-domed mosque inflamed religious tensions in Iraq. In mixed areas like Diyala, the primary job for U.S. troops is no longer to battle insurgents, but to try to stave off civil war.
"When we got here, our chief focus was Sunni insurgent groups," said Turner, who arrived in Diyala in December as part of the 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. But today, he said, "there's a definite trend toward sectarian violence. That's our big focus now, trying to stem it."
The number of attacks in Diyala each month has more than doubled, from about 200 before the Samarra mosque bombing to an average of just under 500 this summer, according to U.S. military figures. The province, which stretches from Baghdad to the Iranian border, is considered vulnerable to sectarian strife: 50 percent of its 1.5 million inhabitants are Sunni, 35 percent are Shiite, and the rest are Kurds and other groups.
Mosque bombings, assassinations of leaders and sectarian kidnappings and attacks on civilians have increased, as have reports that Iraqi police and army units are agents of the violence, according to the U.S. military. An index of civil unrest compiled by U.S. military intelligence shows it escalating rapidly in the swath of western Diyala patrolled by Turner's battalion, recently reaching 75 on the scale. A rating of 100 would indicate full-fledged civil war. Military officials estimate thousands of Shiite and Sunni residents have fled their homes in mixed neighborhoods to escape violence or threats, fueling a growing trend of religious segregation.
For Turner and his soldiers, figuring out which Iraqis are fighting one another and why -- let alone stopping the attacks -- is far more complex than combating an anti-American insurgency. And compared with a year ago, far fewer U.S. troops are in Diyala to keep a lid on the violence. Last summer, three times as many U.S. soldiers patrolled the region now covered by Turner's battalion.
"We expected to be fighting more, but it's all engagement with leaders and the population," Turner said after a day of listening to Sunni and Shiite recriminations in one village following another in 120-degree heat. "It's hard to make heads or tails of their stories," said the soft-spoken company commander, who grew up in Augusta, Kan., and joined the Army at 17.
What is clear is that starting two weeks ago, a round of bloody attacks reignited feuding between the Sunni villages of Mukhisa and Abu Kharma and the larger Shiite town of Abu Saydah -- despite months of American efforts to quell the unrest. In April, scores of U.S. soldiers from Turner's unit moved in to occupy the volatile area, while Lt. Col. Thomas Fisher, the battalion commander, brought local leaders together for talks. Before each session, Fisher would discreetly move the tables closer together. The meetings generated "goodwill but no firm agreement," said Maj. John Digiambattista, the battalion operations officer. Still, under constant American patrol, the area remained relatively calm. U.S. troops left in June.
But on July 12, the situation began to unravel. The brother of a prominent Sunni from the area, provincial official Thassin Tawfeq Jassim, was assassinated near his home. Two days later, a bicycle bomb outside the Abu Saydah city council fatally wounded the town's leading Shiite leader, Raad Majid, and killed four of his bodyguards. Majid died last week of complications.
Then a week ago, on Saturday night, heavy fighting erupted in Abu Saydah al-Saghir, a smaller mixed village nestled in palm groves between Mukhisa and Abu Saydah, according to residents, Iraqi police and U.S. officers. Fighters were armed with Russian-made machine guns, grenades, mortars and bombs. During the unrest, Jassim's house was burned down.
"It was 5 in the afternoon and the Sunnis started the fight," said Yasim Muhammed Hussein, 35, a Shiite resident. "While we were praying at the mosque they shouted 'God is great' and starting firing on the mosque," he said. "They burned my home and killed my relative." In all, Hussein said, 10 people were killed "from the two sides" -- meaning Sunni and Shiite. He said three-quarters of the 200 families in the village had abandoned their homes.
"They came with hoods. They were al-Qaeda," said 1st Lt. Khalan Adnan Rahim, who led an emergency police response force from Baqubah. Three women were killed by an improvised bomb placed at a mosque, and several houses were burned down, he said. "A mortar hit here," he said, pointing to a charred wood lot.
Police and residents said gunfighting continued at night, as the remaining residents stood watch to defend their homes. "It's not safe for us to go to the orchards. They're in the palm groves," Rahim said, motioning to the trees on the village edge. The following day, when resident Salman Ahmed Hamza told Turner's soldiers about a possible bomb down the street, Iraqi police refused to venture beyond their checkpoint to investigate.
"It's dangerous there," said police Lt. Hasam Khalilf. "We can't go there."
But while Shiites blamed a Sunni tribe and the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq for the violence, Sunni refugees in the nearby village of Mukhisa pointed to Shiite tribesmen, militiamen and police.
"Every day they kill Sunni people, two or three a day, and the Iraqi police help the militia," said Hamdia Karim, 28, who was crowded with 23 others into a home in Mukhisa. "We're scared to go back."
Fear is intense on both sides. On Mukhisa's dusty main street, Sunni residents gathered to tell Turner they'd be killed if they set foot in the Shiite market town of Abu Saydah. Policemen, some with militia ties, are known to threaten and harass Sunnis trying to enter the district capital , which controls their ID cards and -- crucially -- their water supply, U.S. officers said.
U.S. commanders are weighing what to do to restore calm to embattled Abu Saydah al-Saghir. "A tool on the table is to occupy the place, but the challenge is how much combat power I have," said Digiambattista, whose forces are stretched south to Baghdad.
"We can't just wash our hands of it, but ultimately the Iraqis will have to handle it," Turner said. "We won't be in Iraq forever."