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An Iraqi Army unit ready to control its turf

On the edge of the Sunni triangle, Iraqis took the lead on security, and violence dropped.

By Neil MacDonaldCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 30, 2005


In the fertile "bread basket" of central Iraq's Diyala valley, roadside-bomb attacks have nearly stopped.

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This ethnically complex patchwork of towns, villages, fields, and orchards, which US commanders call a "little Iraq," has seen its share of insurgent activity since 2003. But nowadays, the local Sunni Arabs appear inclined to climb aboard the US-backed political process, rather than trying to derail it through violence.

The relative peace in the breadbasket is the result of a carefully managed transition from US to Iraqi security responsibility, US and Iraqi commanders say.

While roadside-bomb attacks in July were down more than 30 percent compared to the same month last year, the drop has been especially drastic in August. The local Iraqi Army unit, the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, officially took the lead in a roughly 1,158 square-mile battle space, containing nearly 300,000 residents, on July 31.

"We're responsible for actual security, and it is going well," says the unit's commander, Col. Theya Ismail al-Tamimi, a former intelligence officer under Saddam Hussein who has gained the Americans' respect by keeping constant pressure on the insurgents. "Attacks are a fraction of what they were," says Colonel Theya, as he is known to both his own troops and the Americans.

US troops recently closed down one of their forward operating bases near here, "since the area was so calm," Lt. Col. Roger Cloutier, a US battalion commander, says.

The breadbasket borders the notorious "Sunni triangle," the mainly Sunni Arab swath of north-central Iraq where the insurgency started in 2003, and where it has proven most enduring ever since.

Yet Diyala province could be among the first areas handed over to full Iraqi security control. Planned reductions of US-led coalition forces, which numbered 161,500 in July, might begin as early as next year - depending on political conditions, as well as the readiness of Iraqi military units, US commanders say.

About 79,900 Iraqi Army soldiers and national guardsmen have been counted as being "operational" in August, according to the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index. The stated US goal is to train another 18,639 troops.

"In the Sunni triangle, Diyala is well ahead of the others," according to Col. Steven Salazar, US brigade commander for northeastern Iraq.

Iraqi troops still rely heavily on US support, from planning raids, to stand-by air support in case things turn bad, to detainee processing. But the Iraqi 2/2 Battalion is ready for its training wheels to come off, most US liaison officers say.

Theya agrees: "Right now we have the ability to do this on our own."

The Iraqi way

The 2/2 is hardly like an American battalion. Its troops conduct patrols in unarmored pickup trucks, and the chain of command is still too top-heavy, in the American view.

However, an Iraqi formation can fight the insurgents in an efficient manner, Theya says. "We have a dialogue with people. If I find an explosive device, we'll close the road, and also close all the shops along it," he says. "So if people work with us, they help themselves."

Similar tactics by US troops tend to feed local hostility. Iraqi soldiers are inherently less provocative, Theya says, citing cultural affinities among all Arab Iraqis, whether Sunni or Shiite.

His US counterpart, Colonel Cloutier, also talks about the need to "put an Iraqi face" on operations, from patrolling roads to pamphleteering about the constitutional referendum. "When people here see the Iraqi Army, they see their countrymen, their brothers," Cloutier says. "When they see Bradleys and Humvees rolling through, they see Americans."