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Too few men hunting Al Qaeda

US-Iraqi forces struggle to clear and hold Iraq's Diyala province.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 9, 2007

Al Udhaim, Iraq

A Sunni tribal sheikh was on the phone. Sixty Al Qaeda fighters had returned to a nearby village Friday. Could the Iraqi Army commander in western Diyala Province please send help?

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The militants had been chased out just 10 days ago by Iraqi forces, who were backed by American air cover. At the same time, the US-led operation "Arrowhead Ripper" was under way to reclaim the nearby provincial capital of Baquba.

But Col. Ali Mahmoud's 750 soldiers were tied up, struggling to secure one of the country's main north-south highways (at night, militants plant roadside bombs; in the morning, soldiers clear them). He told the sheikh he didn't have the manpower or equipment to return to the village.

Colonel Mahmoud's dilemma is one of the key challenges facing US and Iraqi forces in Diyala. Without more men, weapons, and vehicles, Iraqi forces are a long way from holding the areas cleared so far, such as the western section of Baquba where Al Qaeda had been entrenched, says everyone from Gen. Mick Bednarek, commander of the Diyala operation involving 10,000 US troops, to the average US soldier.

To even get back to the village of Sufayet, where the sheikh says some 60 fighters believed to be part of the Islamic State in Iraq – an Al Qaeda-linked umbrella group – are now hunkered down, his men would have to wait for US mine-clearing vehicles and tanks to lead the way as the roads to the village have been rigged with improvised explosive devices (IEDs). His US advisers tell him that's impossible now since US forces and equipment are tied up elsewhere in the province.

US and Iraqi officials, analysts, and even figures close to the insurgency all say that well before the start of the high-profile US operation, many leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq fled to the tiny settlements and villages that dot this province.

Further evidence of their ongoing presence came Saturday when a truck bomb struck a busy market in the mostly Shiite Turkmen town of Amerli, about 30 miles northwest of Udhaim, killing up to 150 people. It bore all the hallmarks of previous bloody attacks blamed on Al Qaeda.

In the past three weeks, at least 60 suspected Al Qaeda fighters have been killed and 153 detained, according to the US military.

"Since the kick-off in Baquba, we started getting phone calls the first day: 'Hey, 15 armed men just came through here,' " says Maj. Tim Hoch, of Greenville, S.C., who heads the small team of US Army advisers working with the Iraqi Army unit based in Udhaim.

But a combination of factors appear to be working in favor of the militants, and even helping them thrive in this province, which served as the last haven of Al Qaeda's former leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, before he was killed in a US airstrike more than a year ago.

The militants hold a superior knowledge of the terrain, an abundant supply of cash and ammunition believed to be coming from Iraq's neighbors including Iran and some Gulf Arab states, and a determination to exploit to their advantage the Sunni-Shiite struggle tearing apart the province known as "mini-Iraq" because of its sectarian and ethnic mix.

Some units of the Diyala-based Iraqi Army's 5th Division are themselves enmeshed in the sectarian conflict. A few officers are even suspected of facilitating arms shipments to Sunni fighters linked to Al Qaeda and Shiite militias, says one US military officer.