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How fear turns to resolve in one Iraqi village

US-Iraqi forces persuade a remote town in Diyala Province to fight against Al Qaeda insurgents.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 23, 2008

Residents of Dulim, Iraq, donned fluorescent sashes as they joined a US-organized Concerned Local Citizens (CLC) militia set up last week to combat Al Qaeda insurgents in Diyala Province.

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Dulim, Iraq

Masked militants of Al Qaeda in Iraq have been defeated – for the moment – in their battle to control this frontline farming village. For two years, this remote outpost 20 miles northeast of Baghdad, endured an Al Qaeda presence that imposed its will with killings and intimidation, forcing one sheikh out of town a few months ago.

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Last week, that same sheikh returned with a US Army Cavalry unit backed by an Iraqi Army battalion. He had persuaded the Americans that his people were "desperate" to create a US-funded militia to take on Al Qaeda in Iraq.

But Sheikh Thamir Hassan Ali miscalculated, underestimating Al Qaeda's fearful grip. The imam at the Dulim mosque refused to cooperate, adamant that setting up a Concerned Local Citizens (CLC) group would be a "declaration of war" against Al Qaeda. Only days before, militants had come, warning villagers that "collaborators" would die.

The story of how this village weighed the risks and eventually chose to side with the Americans – after days of rancorous debate and prodding by US officers, the safety of their families and survival of the village in the balance – shows in microcosm how Al Qaeda is losing ground across Iraq. But it also illustrates the challenges faced by US and Iraqi forces as they sweep across parts of Iraq long under militant sway, making promises of support and armed backup that villagers have heard many times in the past, with little positive result. The current four-province offensive has "caused significant damage" to Al Qaeda and killed 130 militants, the US Army commander for northern Iraq Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling said yesterday.

Shortly before the pre-dawn US helicopter ride back to his village of Dulim last week, the beaming Sunni sheikh asserted, "People are so desperate to set up CLCs here, to protect their families. They need someone to be on their side. Absolutely this is a war against Al Qaeda. We are against them."

But the fear was palpable in the frigid muddy village, as dawn heralded a critical choice for villagers. The new American and Iraqi military presence – ushered in by the black-robbed Sheikh Thamir – was initially seen as raising the danger level.

"If anyone registers for CLCs, [Al Qaeda in Iraq] will put them in the road and kill them," lamented one man, standing outside the school where villagers were supposed to sign up for the civilian militia. Only one person made the commitment that day. "We are afraid. We don't have enough weapons to protect ourselves, and with this gun I can't protect myself against mortars."