LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
As Republicans head into Tuesday's Florida primary, candidates are sparring over policy in Iraq. John McCain says his rival, Mitt Romney, wants a timetable for getting American troops out. Romney says that's untrue and wants McCain to apologize.
While Republicans trade jabs about troop withdrawal, the U.S. military surge is sending soldiers into parts of Iraq where they haven't operated much in the past. Some of these areas have become sanctuaries for insurgent groups.
NPR's Corey Flintoff has been embedded with a cavalry squadron north of Baghdad. He reports on the unit's effort to convince local people to fight al-Qaida.
COREY FLINTOFF: Danny Thomas(ph) is the alias of an interpreter who works for the 132 Cav, which is staging a big operation in this farm country in a bend of the Tigris River.
Mr. DANNY THOMAS (Interpreter): This area is named Beshigan(ph). This is a Dulaimi tribe, just Dulaimi tribe living here. The people, they are simple people. They want peace in this place or in this country. This is just 1 percent there are bad people.
FLINTOFF: That 1 percent, if indeed it is only 1 percent, includes a man called Abdul Qadir(ph). He's a shadowy figure to the Americans but well-known to the people of Beshigan. He's part of al-Qaida in Iraq, known as AQI. Just as importantly, he's the brother of Sheikh Abdul Wahab(ph), the local Dulaimi tribe leader.
Lieutenant Colonel BOB McCARTHY (U.S. Army): Sheik Wahab is clearly the guy in the middle. I mean, he freely admits that his brother is aligned with AQI.
FLINTOFF: Lieutenant Colonel Bob McCarthy knows Sheik Wahab well.
Lt. Col. McCARTHY: And he is a guy that is out there and responsible. When he says approve of a CLC for Beshigan. He has put his name on that line that says we're going to choose our own future.
FLINTOFF: CLC stands for concerned local citizens, the Army's name for the local self-defense forces that pays to resist al-Qaida. Colonel McCarthy's job is to kill the insurgents or drive them out and get Sheikh Wahab to set up a CLC. Sheik Wahab's job is to look out for the welfare of his village. He and the colonel discuss the problems over glasses of sweet tea. Speaking through Danny, the interpreter, he tells the colonel that he is willing to work with Americans.
Sheikh ABDUL WAHAB (Dulaimi Tribe Leader, Beshigan): (Through translator) And I am with them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sheikh WAHAB: (Through translator) We are friends. We help each other.
FLINTOFF: The sheikh is a quiet man in his mid-40s. He carries himself like a tribal chief. But he has the sun-browned face and rough hands of a farmer. The self-defense group would employ 50 of his tribesmen and bring more than $15,000 a month into the village in wages alone.
Captain Tony Keller(ph) works closely with Sheik Wahab and knows is concerns.
Captain TONY KELLER (132 Cavalry, U.S. Army): Maybe he understands the big picture, say, if I stand up a CLC, and when they end up getting 50 people killed - 50 men. Sheikh Wahab, you know, it's a thinking man's game.
FLINTOFF: In the weeks leading up to the 132 Cav's offensive in Beshigan, Sheikh Wahab had supplied Captain Keller with the names of 50 men he said would be reliable and interested in joining the self-defense unit.
Capt. KELLER: Then, when it's time, you know, the rubber meets the road, goes a lot harder to get the 50 names to commit.
FLINTOFF: The sheik is able to muster fewer than a dozen young men who are willing to take part. They're not exactly hardened men of the soil either, more like former school teachers and store clerks willing to put on the reflective road worker-style vest that make them seem like easy targets.
Later, at the house that holds Sheikh Wahab's sprawling extended family, Lieutenant Bob Schultz(ph) searches for photos that could help identify the sheik's brother.
Lieutenant BOB SCHULTZ (132 Cavalry, U.S. Army): Where are those pictures?
Mr. THOMAS: (Speaking in foreign language)
FLINTOFF: Sheikh Wahab flips through a dog-eared stack of photos, some quite old, while his little boy hands him more.
FLINTOFF: There is no photo of the brother as a grown man. But the sheikh pauses for a long time, fingering a tattered picture, black and white and turning brown with age.
It shows two curly-headed boys in clean white shirts. The older boy is clearly Wahab himself. The little boy is his brother, now a man who could one day come back to kill him. He holds out the photo. But it's of no value to the men who were searching for an al-Qaida leader. Lieutenant Schultz is ready to go and he wants the sheikh to come with him.
Lt. SCHULTZ: All right. Tell him he'll see his wife tomorrow. We'll take care of them tonight.
Mr. THOMAS: (Speaking in foreign language)
FLINTOFF: In the course of the night, Sheikh Wahab and Colonel McCarthy will come up with a new plan to recruit men from other tribes into the CLC. Colonel McCarthy.
Lt. Col. McCARTHY: That's actually better because it buys in each of the smaller tribes living in the area. Somehow, it's a collective effort. And no single tribe or no single household is standing alone when AQI comes back.
FLINTOFF: For his part, McCarthy says the 132 Cav will keep coming back, along with Iraqi army units to show that Sheikh Wahab has support and firepower behind him. For the sheikh, it's still a potentially deadly game when he's left with a lot to think about.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News.
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