By Ernesto Londoño and Hasan Shammari
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
BAGHDAD, Jan. 22 -- U.S. Army officers described Monday how they disbanded what they called a terrorist network whose members killed tribesmen and otherwise sowed fear across large pockets of Diyala province north of Baghdad.
"There are shopkeepers who had closed their doors out of fear, that are now beginning to open their doors," said Maj. Brett G. Sylvia, speaking from Diyala through a satellite video link to reporters in Baghdad. "Families are starting to move back into the area. A sense of normalcy is attempting to be reestablished in this area."
Minutes before the news conference began, armed men kidnapped the mayor of the provincial capital, Baqubah, blew up his office and stole six government cars, including three new Chevrolet police pickup trucks, officials in the province said.
The near-simultaneous scenarios played out like a tale of two Iraqs, one inching toward stability, the other engulfed in chaos.
After seizing Mayor Khalid al-Sanjari, one of the armed men grabbed a loudspeaker from a police car and taunted the chief of police, the officials said.
" 'We are Ansar al-Sunna battalions,' the man blurted out," according to Abu Sajjad, a member of the Baqubah municipal council. " 'If you dare, come and take us.' " Ansar al-Sunna is a Sunni insurgent group active in the city.
The 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division, made up of roughly 4,000 soldiers, is responsible for Diyala and some surrounding areas -- roughly the size of Vermont and New Hampshire -- in tandem with the Iraqi army's 5th Division.
In the video conference, the brigade commander, Col. David W. Sutherland, spoke proudly of his soldiers and commended his Iraqi counterparts for their role in the operation.
"There is no doubt that the cycle of violence is on the downturn," he said.
U.S. and Iraqi forces in Diyala first fought the insurgent network -- known as the Council, which officials said was an offshoot of the Sunni group al-Qaeda in Iraq -- in November. Then they spent several weeks analyzing the group's techniques and weaknesses, the colonel said.
On Jan. 4, U.S. and Iraqi forces began a concerted attack, which lasted nearly 10 days and resulted in the killing of nearly 100 members of the Council and the detention of 50, Sutherland said. The commanders also said they seized large caches of weapons, including nearly 1,200 Katyusha rockets and 1,300 rocket-propelled grenades. The enemy, military officials said, used spider holes and irrigation canals to store weapons and ammunition.
Sutherland was flanked by two Iraqi commanders, who were wearing slightly darker uniforms. They weren't there to paint "a rosy picture," Sutherland told reporters. But they wanted to highlight what he and Iraqi officials described as progress in the province.
"The situation in Baqubah is controlled," said Maj. Gen. Ghassan Adnan Awad al-Bawi, the provincial police chief, adding that rumors to the contrary should be ignored. "The purpose of these rumors is to hit the will of our citizens."
In Baqubah, meanwhile, the armed men arrived at the municipal building waving guns, said Abu Sajjad, the council member, who declined to give his full name for security reasons. The attackers targeted only the mayor, who runs the city of roughly 280,000 people.
"They did not take any one of his guards," Abu Sajjad said. "They didn't kill or wound anyone."
He wondered whether the mayor had been set up. Some high-ranking city officials who should have been at work had left unexpectedly, he said, adding that the parking lot behind the building was unusually deserted. The mayor's one-story building was destroyed.
"We don't know yet why he was targeted," said Hussein al-Zubaydi, a member of the provincial council and head of its security committee. "We don't know whether it was personal."
As the news conference ended, reporters who had assembled in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone were handed press kits with photographs, maps and biographical information about the American commanders. They also were given a DVD with raw footage of parts of the operation, called Turki Bowl because it happened close to the village of Turki.
About 30 minutes after the kidnapping, U.S. military and Iraqi security forces arrived at the scene, cordoned it off and inspected the damage as military helicopters hovered overhead, officials said.
Shammari reported from Baqubah. Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi, Naseer Nouri and Waleed Saffar in Baghdad contributed to this report.