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.
"It's very hard with random murdering and killing to get there" in time to stop it, said Digiambattista, who advises Iraqis to try to defend themselves until help arrives.
Complicating the problem is the widespread belief that some Iraqi forces are taking sides in the sectarian violence.
As mortar attacks pounded villages here late last month, scores of Sunni and Shiite tribal and religious leaders gathered in a dim hall in Khan Bani Sad to try to reach a peace agreement. But the meeting dissolved into rancor after the chief of police, Col. Hashim Hussein Abid, took to the podium. "Honestly, today I didn't want to come to this meeting," Abid admitted. "It's like we're going around in an empty circle" of revenge killing, he said.
A sheik in white and gold robes stood up and charged that Iraqi police and soldiers were allowing armed men to pass through checkpoints. "The Iraqi army and Iraqi police aren't good," he shouted, challenging Abid to "swear he doesn't know about this situation." A Sunni religious leader, Mohammed Isa Allami, decried the escalating violence and blamed the Iraqi army for "allowing militia to kill innocent people on the roads."
U.S. and Iraqi officials acknowledge that Iraqi police in Khan Bani Sad are heavily infiltrated by Mahdi Army militiamen and that some soldiers also are sympathetic to the group. "They could be doing it as a matter of survival," Tansey said. "If you're Shiite, you cooperate with them or they'll kill you in the middle of the night."
Unsure of the loyalties of Iraqi forces, U.S. officers sometimes lie to Iraqi army commanders about where they are going on joint missions and require Iraqi soldiers to give up their cellphones before leaving camp. Police are distrusted even more.
Ironically, as Iraqis increasingly fight among themselves, many look to the U.S. military to broker their conflicts. For example, Iraqi officials moved the Khan Bani Sad meeting from a mosque to a public hall to ensure that American officers could attend.
But Iraqi army leaders here are working hard to win public trust as mediators. In a blunt exchange at the meeting, Brig. Gen. Saman Talabany, 38, commander of the Iraqi army brigade overseeing the region, told the agitated room of sheiks and imams that despite criticisms, his soldiers offer them their best hope.
"We were traitors because we worked with the coalition. Now we're bastards because we are securing no one, and the Americans are the friends," he said, acknowledging the complaints. But in the end, he said, "no one will help you but the Iraqi army."
"We aren't wearing hoods. We aren't killing kids," Talabany said. " . . . We are the true mujaheddin."
Talabany, a former fighter for the Kurdish militia known as the pesh merga , was trained at the Australian Defense College and is an aggressive commander, willing to kick down doors in firefights and harass the Defense Ministry in Baghdad for pay for his men.
But Talabany's challenges are many. He is short hundreds of soldiers and crucial supplies such as water -- he recently went for days without a shower in 120-degree heat. His soldiers vary in skill from expert scouts to privates who barely know how to hold a weapon, and accidental discharges have wounded several fellow soldiers, U.S. military advisers say.
Overall, the brigade's confidence and capabilities are growing, aided by platoon-level training by a U.S. Special Forces team. Talabany's soldiers recently captured a top al-Qaeda operative on their own. To operate without U.S. help, however, the brigade will need helicopters, intelligence assets such as unmanned aerial vehicles, and artillery.
All the while, Talabany must strive to appear impartial to feuding Shiite and Sunni leaders. "General Talabany is walking a tightrope of religious, political and military influences," said Lt. Col. Frank Muggeo, head of a U.S. military team that advises Talabany's brigade. But ultimately, Muggeo said, he believes the Iraqi army has "a better chance of taking care of any sectarian violence and defusing it than anyone else."
In a major operation late last month, Talabany's forces, backed by U.S. tanks and attack helicopters, swept through villages involved in the back-and-forth mortar strikes, capturing several suspects and mortar rounds. The show of force, coupled with tighter security at checkpoints and more-frequent Iraqi army and U.S. military patrols in Khan Bani Sad, quieted the bombardments.
Searching a farm, Mohammed ali Ahmed, a 26-year-old Shiite soldier, shook his head. "In this area, all the Sunnis are killing Shiites," he said, dragging a finger across his throat. "The Sunnis are upset and want to destroy the new government. God willing, we will get control and civil war won't happen."