Strife Moving Out From Baghdad to Villages

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 16, 2006

KHAN BANI SAD, Iraq -- Telba Khalif was in the vineyard when the mortar shell crashed down, sending her running terrified toward her house. Day and night, similar explosions had rocked her village -- on the road, by the canal, in the fields -- in what U.S. and Iraqi military officials call a bleeding of sectarian strife out from Baghdad.

"We can't sleep every night because this is happening," Khalif said in her stucco home, surrounded by other veiled women and girls. "We're very scared."

Mortar attacks that erupted last month between Sunni and Shiite villages around Khan Bani Sad are part of a complex power struggle in the demographically mixed province of Diyala, a contested area stretching from Baghdad to Iran. Sunni fighters are trying to push Shiite families out of the region, while Shiite militiamen from Baghdad are moving in aggressively to attack Sunnis and expand their turf, the officials say.

U.S. commanders had planned on withdrawing hundreds of American troops from this province, but instead this month they ordered an increase in troop levels to help stem the spread of sectarian violence. The Iraqi army has grown more capable in Diyala, and took over a large portion of the province last month. But the decision to add American troops underscored the limitations of their Iraqi counterparts, particularly the police, who must overcome mistrust fostered by the sectarian tensions.

"Our mission is not to let them fail catastrophically," one U.S. officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of the Iraqi troops.

Attacks in Diyala have more than doubled since last summer, with more than 60 percent now directed at Iraqi civilians. Thousands of Shiite and Sunni residents have fled their neighborhoods after receiving death threats, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.

The officials also noted that the province's mixed population, its long border with Iran, and its rivers and fruit production make it attractive for a land grab. In Khan Bani Sad, in particular, the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, is intent on moving in while also pushing the Sunnis out, they said.

The situation is not unlike the one in the Iraqi capital.

"We see the challenges of Baghdad being exported," said Maj. John Digiambattista, operations officer for a U.S. Army battalion here.

The rising influence of the Mahdi Army is clearly on display in Khan Bani Sad, located about 12 miles northeast of Baghdad. The militia's black flags flutter from light poles, and the scowling visage of Sadr glares down from posters along the main road.

More than 100 militiamen operate here in cells, setting up illegal checkpoints on the highways to Baghdad, robbing trucks, kidnapping and murdering Sunnis, and staging attacks on Sunni villages, U.S. and Iraqi officials say. In May, dozens of Mahdi Army militiamen disguised in Iraqi army uniforms and driving muddied trucks traveled north to attack the nearby village of Arab Jabar, said Capt. Colin Tansey, intelligence officer for the U.S. battalion in western Diyala. About 30 militiamen were captured, he said.

Often, however, the militiamen elude capture, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers say. The Mahdi Army sets up its checkpoints every day and kidnaps Sunni residents, "but usually when we go to arrest them, they aren't there," said Capt. Salah Bakery, 24, who commands the Iraqi army company in Khan Bani Sad. The militia is "ghost-like," one U.S. officer agreed.

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