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In Iraq, American officials are quick to trumpet the success of their alliance with Sunni tribes in the western Iraqi province of Anbar. And they suggest, as President Bush did recently, that Anbar could serve as a model for other tribal regions in the country. But attempts by the U.S. military to promote reconciliation in nearby Diyala province have been thwarted by insurgent attacks as well as by an ethnic divide that doesn't exist in Anbar.
NPR's Jamie Tarabay recently embedded with U.S. troops in Diyala. She sent this report.
Mayor NAJEM HARBI (Muqdadiyah, Iraq): (Speaking foreign language)
JAMIE TARABAY: The mayor of Muqdadiyah, Najem Harbi, presides over a meeting in his office. The room is filled with tribal leaders, Iraqi security officials and - trying not to be too obvious at the back - American soldiers resting against their body armor.
Mayor HARBI: (Speaking foreign language)
TARABAY: Muqdadiyah is one of the largest towns of Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. The tribal leaders here are expected to sign a contract by the end of the meeting in which they promised to stop all kidnappings, murders, turf wars, and attacks on other tribes. They must agree to pass on information and tips to Iraqi security forces or the Americans. And the tribal leaders must pledge to solve all problems through dialogue. It's a tense meeting.
Mayor HARBI: (Speaking foreign language)
TARABAY: After heated discussions that last several hours, the mayor is able to declare some success. He calls one sheikh after another to come to his desk and sign the piece of paper. But later, Mayor Najem voices his frustration.
Mayor HARBI: (Through translator) Not all the sheikhs came, only those whose areas have been cleared by the Americans. But now, we need to provide them with basic services, water and security.
TARABAY: Diyala province, lush with vegetation and palm groves, has always been known as the breadbasket of Iraq. Diyala has more natural resources than the largely desert province of Anbar to the west. It is also home to a greater ethnic and tribal mix. There are at least 23 major tribes, and over a hundred subtribes, all with competing interests.
Recently in Baqubah, the provincial capital, most of the tribal leaders agreed to enter an alliance and stop fighting each other. But that process, encouraged by the U.S. military, has also been fraught with problems.
On Monday, a suicide bomber killed at least 25 people attending a meeting of Sunni and Shiite sheikhs in Baqubah. Among those killed was Diyala's police chief and the head of Diyala's largest tribe. Muqdadiyah, less than half an hour away, is still in the throes of sectarian war.
Not far from the Mayor Najem's office, Lieutenant Colonel Keith Gogas, squadron commander for the 69th Cavalry, sits inside an American armored vehicle and studies a map of Muqdadiyah. It's dotted with different colored pushpins. Some denote suspected roadside bombs, others locate checkpoints, and likely hideouts for the militants of al-Qaida in Iraq. Beside the map, scrawled on a white board, are different military operations and names of neighborhoods that have been partially cleared.
Lieutenant Colonel KEITH GOGAS (Squadron Commander, U.S. Army 69th Cavalry Division): We've got elements from al-Qaida. We've got elements from Ansar al-Sunna. We have Jaish al-Mahdi. And we have tribal differences between Sunnis and Shia. We have a lot of former Baathists that have settled in this area. So it's really every different kind of group you would see in Iraq, we've got a little bit of each of those here in Muqdadiyah. So it makes it very complex.
TARABAY: Adding to the complexity is the months-long U.S. troop surge. Sending more troops into the streets of Baghdad and Anbar province pushed insurgents out of both areas and into Diyala province. It slowed down efforts by U.S. forces to stabilize this area.
Colonel DAVID SUTHERLAND (Commander, U.S. Forces in Diyala Province): So the answer - our Sunni guys an objective flint?
Captain KEVIN BRADLEY (Charlie Troop Commander, Diyala Province): Yes. They control most of the flint according to the guy we talked to.
TARABAY: Colonel David Sutherland, commander of American forces in Diyala province, has been making the rounds in Muqdadiyah, checking on progress in the latest set of operations.
Captain Kevin Bradley, Charlie troop commander, reports soldiers in his area are taking a census of all the households and are trying to get a local water treatment plant running again.
Sutherland speaks with an easy Jack Nicholson droll, lighting a cigarette as he sits beside Bradley.
Col. SUTHERLAND: You're going to be here for a little while.
Capt. BRADLEY: Sir, I'm a pin-drop here. You know, I've only got seven guys per clearance team and I've got three clearance teams.
Col. SUTHERLAND: You know the amazing thing about you is you've got your personality.
TARABAY: Commanders like Bradley have to work both the military and political angles, reaching out to locals while trying to subdue gunmen. He tells Sutherland a man claiming to represent Ansar al-Sunna, a group allied with al-Qaida, wants to meet with him.
Capt. BRADLEY: Until we actually really talk to someone who holds sway or can actually explain what their group consists of and how they're different from al-Qaida and how they want to just be part of the government process, then I'm really skeptical about it, to be honest.
TARABAY: Bradley says insurgent groups started approaching the U.S. military here a couple of months ago to try and forge the same sort of alliance Sunni fighters in Baghdad and Anbar have made.
Cutting a deal with Anbar's tribal population was made easier by the fact that the province is mostly Sunni, mostly from the same tribal confederation, and all fighting the same enemy. Diyala, says Captain Bradley, is completely different.
Capt. BRADLEY: Like two kilometers down the road, and it's a different kettle of fish. You know, what the insurgency is in Anbar and what it is in Baghdad, or what the fight is in those places is completely different just because you have different populations, different groups.
TARABAY: And Muqdadiyah's ethnic landscape continues to shift. Once mixed between Sunnis and Shiites, the sort of displacement and fighting that has dominated Baghdad's streets is now playing out here. Bradley says Sunni insurgents are relentlessly pushing the Shiite population out.
Capt. BRADLEY: All of the Shias who have been displaced have all moved out as the battle line moves farther to the south.
TARABAY: Muqdadiyah remains deadly for U.S. troops. In the past two weeks, eight soldiers were killed in roadside bomb attacks. After months in Baghdad without losing a soldier, a Stryker unit suffered its first casualties upon arrival in Diyala. Despite the fact American troops have been training Iraqi security forces there for the past six months, Mayor Najem Harbi says they're as bad now as it they were then.
Mayor HARBI: (Through translator) There's been no change. If the Americans were to withdraw now, we wouldn't know what to do because, right now, the gunmen are stronger than the Iraqi army or the Iraqi police.
TARABAY: Mayor Najem adds he has yet to receive a single dinar from either the central or provincial governments. He relies on the U.S. military for everything — from securing his city to paying for every piece of equipment in the mayor's office, right down to the pen and notebooks that sit on his desk. He also depends on the U.S. military to subdue Muqdadiyah's neighborhoods and engage community leaders, so he can bring them to his office to sign more reconciliation agreements.
Jamie Tarabay, NPR News.
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