Sectarian Tensions Stain Progress in Diyala It has been a hard slog for U.S. troops trying to bring security to the Iraqi province of Diyala, northeast of the capital. U.S. troops continue to face insurgent attacks despite a fragile agreement among Sunni and Shiite tribal leaders in the province to cooperate with the U.S. military.
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Sectarian Tensions Stain Progress in Diyala

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Sectarian Tensions Stain Progress in Diyala

Sectarian Tensions Stain Progress in Diyala

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

We're going to begin this hour in Iraq's Diyala province, where a changing of the guard is taking place. The American brigade that's been stationed there for the past 14 months is leaving. They've been able to gain the cooperation of tribal leaders in the region and that has allowed some security to slowly return. But the success is fragile and the incoming brigade will be faced with a challenge: keeping the sheikhs united while tamping down sectarian hostilities.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay has this report from Diyala.

JAMIE TARABAY: Colonel David Sutherland, the outgoing American military commander for Diyala province, weaves his way through a crowd of tribal sheikhs who turned out to bid him farewell and welcome his successor, Colonel Jon Lehr from the 4th Stryker Brigade.

Unidentified Man #1: (Through translator) I'm the tribal sheikh of Qahira tribe.

Colonel JON LEHR (U.S. Army; Commander, 4th Stryker Brigade): Very nice. I understand that.

Unidentified Man #1: (Through translator) And we wish you success here in the province.

Colonel LEHR: Thank you.

TARABAY: The provincial governor, a diminutive man called Raad Tamimi, begins the meeting with a tribute to the departing American colonel.

Mr. RAAD RASHEED HAMEED AL TAMIMI (Provincial Governor, Diyala, Iraq): (Through translator) And we congratulate Colonel Lehr for transferring the command from Col. Sutherland. And I do not think he's going to start over something new, just we want him to continue whatever Col. Sutherland did for us.

TARABAY: Then, the tribal leaders, both Sunni and Shiite, rise to address the meeting one after another. Each says pretty much the same thing - wishing Col. Sutherland the best and hoping the new commander will follow in his footsteps. But the polite atmosphere is abruptly shattered by an old man in a gray robe.

Mr. ABDUL RAZAK JASM(ph) (Resident, Diyala, Iraq): (Speaking foreign language)

TARABAY: The old man, Abdul Razak Jasm, complains that Iraqi police came to his village two days ago and pulled him and the rest if his family out of their house. He says he doesn't know what's become of his family or his belongings because he was taken away by police, thrown in jail, and only released on the day of the farewell ceremony here.

Mr. JASM: (Speaking foreign language)

TARABAY: The other tribal leaders try to calm him down. The governor says this meeting is not supposed to deal with security problems. It was called only to give Sutherland a proper farewell. But the incident illustrates the problems facing American commanders here. Jasm eventually relents and returns to his chair and the speeches go on.

Finally, Sutherland stands up to speak. His right arm is still bandaged. He was wounded in a suicide bombing at an earlier tribal gathering in September. The bomber killed 24 people, including several local religious leaders.

Colonel DAVID SUTHERLAND (Commander, 3rd Greywolf Brigade): The most influential people in Diyala are the sheikhs. They control the men, they lead the men, and they will to define democracy in this province.

TARABAY: Sutherland knows the success in quelling violence in Diyala is still fragile and it depends on the sheikhs' commitment to continue cooperating. There are still large sections of the province where insurgents' hold sway. Sutherland tells the grim faces in the crowd they need to stick together.

Col. SUTHERLAND: An attack for one tribe is an attack on another. An attack on one family is an attack on another family, and that the tribes and the families are united and corruption and actions of terrorism will not be tolerated.

(Soundbite of applause)

TARABAY: Diyala's ethnic and sectarian mix has kept tensions high in much of the province even as the U.S. military seeks to pacify the region. In Sunni areas where locals are distrustful of the largely Shiite-Iraqi security forces, American troops have enlisted volunteers to serve as local security guards, much like those in neighboring Anbar province and in some Sunni districts of Baghdad. Sutherland has used the thread of force to keep Sunni and Shiite tribes from breaking reconciliation agreements. He has detained Iraq security officers for abusing detainees or carrying out summary executions.

Sutherland has also used money to influence people and the effects of cooperating with the U.S. military are clear to the locals in their own neighborhoods. Some parts of Diyala have 24-hour electricity now and clean, running water. Schools have reopened; the hospital system is being redesigned. The U.S. military is directly paying people to clean streets and repair local infrastructure. Despite the continuing threat from insurgents and the sectarian tensions, Sutherland believes the U.S. military should now scale back in Diyala.

Col. SUTHERLAND: I don't think that putting more soldiers into the fight was going to - at this point, is going to take it to the next level. I think it's now the people, and the people will determine the outcome of Diyala.

TARABAY: Diyala Governor Tamimi says there's still a long way to go. Winning the trust of the people will take time, he says. And the sheikhs need to be reminded of all they have in common rather than focus on their differences.

Mr. TAMIMI: (Through Translator) The building and the progress we achieved we will maintain, and we will guard it not just with our words but with our swords, too.

TARABAY: Jamie Tarabay, NPR News in Diyala province, Iraq.

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