Diyala Still in Turmoil After U.S. Occupation A visit to a small village explores U.S. military claims that its occupation of Iraq's Diyala province has increased security there. Insurgent attacks continue, the local economy is suffering and the local population is increasingly anti-American.
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Diyala Still in Turmoil After U.S. Occupation

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Diyala Still in Turmoil After U.S. Occupation

Diyala Still in Turmoil After U.S. Occupation

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To get an idea of those conditions, we turn now to a small rural village in Iraq's Diyala province. Six months ago, American troops occupied this village with the goal of securing a small, one-lane bridge and crippling the Sunni insurgency in the area. NPR's Jamie Tarabay visited the village when the U.S. troops first arrived. And she recently returned to see what, if any, progress had been made.

(Soundbite of rooster crowing)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: Salaam aleikum.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

JAMIE TARABAY: The village of Shakarat is a stark brown speck hidden in miles of lush green fields and a forest of date palms. The bridge has been the village's lifeline for decades. It's the only canal crossing for miles. Local farmers crossed it to bring their goods to market. More recently, insurgents used it to launch attacks, then disappear into the palm grove. Then, six months ago, the Americans came.

One of the first things they did was to takeover the only two-story house on Shakarat's main street, a few yards from the small bridge. At the time, a roll of giant sandbags was all that separated the patrol base from the village. Shops along the road were open, and people sat outside talking.

Not far from the American base is a house that had collapsed from the inside, spraying the front guard and with faded yellow bricks. The soldiers say al-Qaida in Iraq turned the home into a bomb, or as they called it, a house-born IED.

As U.S. troops moved into this area, there was also an increase in the number of insurgents. One consequence of the surge in Baghdad was the relocation of fighters to places like Diyala. And they brought new tactics, says Captain Mike Panero(ph) from Pittsburg, New Jersey.

Captain MIKE PANERO (U.S. Army): This is the site of the house-born IED. They killed an Iraqi army soldier. And then there was also a chlorine attack, I guess, the end of July, where they brought in a couple of chlorine tanks, open up all the valves, let them run off in town. And at that point, most of the town had left.

TARABAY: And this is right around the corner from your patrol base.

Capt. PANERO: Fairly close, yes.

TARABAY: Under your noses.

Capt. PANERO: Yes.

TARABAY: So now, those giant sandbags around the U.S. base have been replaced by massive concrete blast walls that stretched down both sides of the road. The street is now silent. The vast majority of shops are closed.

Panero says the U.S. military and the local village chief try to convince people to return. Shakarat now has about a hundred residents. The rest, Panero says, left because the closure of the bridge to vehicular traffic has killed off local business. Now, an American armored vehicle is permanently parked in the middle of the bridge.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

TARABAY: Iraqi men crossing into the village lift their shirts to show they're not hiding explosives. Women are searched by female American soldiers.

Yeah, there were a few things that were supposed to happen in Shakarat when I was here six months ago. This bridge was eventually supposed to be open for the public to use, vehicles and the - you guys were supposed to draw down your presence here and allow the ISF, the Iraqi army and police to takeover.

Capt. PANERO: Yes.

TARABAY: Where are we with both of those things?

Capt. PANERO: We pretty much have to restrict traffic across the bridge, mostly because it runs through much right by the patrol base, so it's just a force protection measure that we have to take to ensure that our soldiers are protected. As far as the Iraqi army and Iraqi police coming up here, they're still not ready, I don't think. If we weren't here, I'm sure that they would leave just because they depend on us for a lot of things.

TARABAY: A handful of shops are still open. One is a metal workshop. Next door, colorful headscarves for women flutter in the breeze. Along the village cement walls, insurgence have spray-painted an edict. Women are forbidden from going outside without wearing an abaya - the all-encompassing black robe. Other freshly painted graffiti reads: Long live the Islamic state of Iraq, the umbrella group for al-Qaida in Iraq and its allies.

Capt. PANERO: Yeah, that's new.

TARABAY: Walking around the corner from the collapsed house, a U.S. patrol sees men loading a white pickup truck with furniture, a fridge and satellite dishes. Like others before them, these people are leaving Shakarat because the closure of the bridge to vehicle traffic has dried up their business. One of the men, Ayash Halak Awad(ph), says he's moving because there's no work here.

Capt. PANERO: Are you moving for good or just till things are better here?

Mr. AYASH HALAK AWAD: (Foreign language spoken)

TARABAY: Wearing a crisp white shirt and trousers, Awad keeps his hands in his pockets. He doesn't look at Captain Panero while he speaks to an Iraqi interpreter, but he blames Panero and the other American soldiers for the drop in business.

Capt. PANERO: Al-Qaida has nothing to do with that?

Mr. AWAD: (Foreign language spoken)

TARABAY: Al-Qaida, Awad says, didn't close the road; the Americans did.

Capt. PANERO: They just kidnapped people and beheaded them and things, right? That's better?

TARABAY: Awad says, no, but adds since the Americans have closed off this area, it's the soldiers' responsibility to provide security.

Capt. PANERO: Whose village is this?

Mr. AWAD: (Foreign language spoken)

Capt. PANERO: Is it your village or is it my village?

Mr. AWAD: (Through interpreter) Of course it's ours. It's mine.

Capt. PANERO: So why do I have the responsibility and you don't have the responsibility of securing your village?

TARABAY: There are other men standing nearby watching Awad and Panero talk. Awad says he doesn't even who spray paints the threats on the village walls. He says he goes into his house when it gets dark and closes the gate. And if someone knocks, he says, he doesn't answer.

Capt. PANERO: I'm just saying that at some point you - the population - have to take responsibility for your own village, and you have to take some responsibility for the security situation here. And I don't need you all to do anything except for help us catch the guys that are doing these things, that are coming and murdering your women in cold blood, that are trying to poison your children. That's all I need, is help in identifying those people that are coming into town and doing it.

TARABAY: But Awad tells the American soldier he won't accuse anyone of a crime without real proof.

As Panero walks away, he says he knows there are scouts in the village who work for the insurgents. People here have been too afraid to even collect their food rations from military distribution points for fear they'd be marked as collaborating with the Americans.

The American military took over this village to secure the bridge and prevent insurgent attacks on its forces. Panero says while the base still gets mortar fire and occasional gunfire, the measure has been largely effective. But it has come at the cost of alienating a community, driving people away and shutting down their economy.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News.

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