MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
To Iraq now where U.S. military units in Salahuddin province today say former rebel fighters are turning themselves in by the hundreds. Now, that includes some leaders who, in the past, were strongly anti-American. The region has been known for years as a violent stronghold for Sunni insurgents, including al-Qaida. But now, it's relatively quiet.
NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Baghdad.
COREY FLINTOFF: There was a time when Mullah Nadhum al-Jubouri appeared on television, standing in a mosque, planked by masked gunmen. He was an insurgent spokesman who called for holy war against the Americans and the defense of Sunnis in Salahuddin province, a call that was widely understood to mean attacks against Shiites. Speaking today, he doesn't deny his violent past.
NORRIS: (Through translator) In the past, we believed we were defending our country against the occupation, so we took up weapons or we supported armed groups.
FLINTOFF: But the 30-year-old preacher has made a complete turnaround. He's gone from being a member of the Islamic army in Iraq and an ally of al-Qaida to the leader of a force that fights against them.
Captain Anthony Keller has spent a lot of time trying to figure out Mullah Nadhum, and he now says he thinks the turnaround is sincere.
NORRIS: Mullah Nadhum, phenomenal Iraqi, I think he understands, he gets it. You know, once he started seeing Iraqis killing Iraqis, you know, he takes pride in his country, he said, enough's enough.
FLINTOFF: Keller is a troop commander in the 132 Cav, a unit of the Army's 101st Airborne, which has been fighting insurgents in the area for nearly a year. Keller says the 132 Cav now operates freely in areas where soldiers routinely met with insurgent attacks and roadside bombs. In part, that's because the unit's commander worked out a way for enemy fighters to give themselves up, sign a ceasefire with the U.S. military, and return to normal life.
NORRIS: If they had no warrant for their arrest with the Iraqi system and coalition forces were not directly targeting them, they will sign a reconciliation paper with their sheik and then they're done. They are able to continue their life and pursue, you know, any avenue.
FLINTOFF: Fighters who are wanted by the U.S. or Iraqi forces do have to go through the Iraqi court system where they can answer the charges against them.
Mullah Shakr al-Azzawi is another Sunni cleric who was part of the insurgency, but now leads a local guard group funded by the U.S. Army. Speaking during a meeting of tribal sheiks, he says he faces charges in two murders and a kidnapping, but he gave himself up because pressure from the American and Iraqi forces made the situation desperate for the insurgent gunmen and their families.
NORRIS: (Through translator) It was disastrous, far worse than you can imagine. If a woman was about to give birth, we couldn't even drive her to the hospital. It was too risky.
FLINTOFF: Mullah Shakr says he would never have joined the reconciliation process if it were not for his trust in American soldiers as intermediaries. When he faces charges, he says, he's relying on an American officer to go to court with him.
Captain Christian Wollenburg, the unit's intelligence officer, says that out of more than 500 men who've turned themselves in, about 170 have been assigned court dates. Of those, more than two dozen have been found not guilty of the charges against them.
NORRIS: So far, only two individuals have had significant evidence to warrant transferring them to high crimes court, and both of those were within the top 10 of our target list.
FLINTOFF: Mullah Nadhum, the formerly anti-American preacher, says the main concern now is to assure former insurgents that they will get fair treatment if they turn themselves in.
NORRIS: (Through translator) The only gunmen who won't come forward are those who were involved in killing innocent Iraqis. The others will go as long as they know the process will be transparent and they will get a speedy trial.
FLINTOFF: Mullah Nadhum estimates that there are about 1,800 militants in the area around the town of Balad, and he says he believes that most of them will eventually reconcile.
Not everyone believes that the motives of all of the reconciling gunmen are pure, or that their hands are as clean of innocent blood as they say. But as one Iraqi put it, for now, everybody's trying to be an angel on Earth.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News.