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Iraqi town defies Al Qaeda

Despite attack, Dulaim vows to bar Al Qaeda in Iraq, which it ousted from the town last year.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 12, 2008

Dulaim, Iraq: Despite a deadly attack in September by Al Qaeda in Iraq, 'Sons of Iraq' militia stand firm in keeping the group out.

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Dulaim, Iraq

Dulaim is an Iraqi village transformed. Where masked gunmen from Al Qaeda in Iraq once imposed their will with killings and even stole irrigation pumps, today numerous Iraqi Army, police, and local Sunni militia checkpoints attest to new levels of security.

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The change has been dramatic. It is the result of this farming hamlet deciding last January to change sides, reluctantly turning away from Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and toward US and Iraqi forces.

But despite recently paying a high price for that shift, this village is determined not to turn back.

AQI struck in late September, killing 22 in the most lethal attack in a year in troubled eastern Diyala Province.

Instead of fear or failure, however, the unexpected response has been a recommitment to fight.

Among the dead was Sheikh Thamir Hassan Ali, the man who last year was forced by AQI to flee this village. He was then brought back in January by US Army helicopter in a predawn operation that the Monitor joined.

Sheikh Thamir's death highlights the challenges that persist across Iraq in trying to snuff out AQI – and in maintaining the morale of the Sons of Iraq (SOI), also known as Awakening guards. The US-supported Sunni militias have fought AQI, but face continued violence and an uncertain future as the government, this week, takes over paying their salaries.

The Shiite-led government was to make its first payments on Tuesday in Baghdad to more than 50,000 members of the SOI, many of them former Sunni insurgents stood up and paid for by US forces. But for months, concern has grown among Sunnis and US officers alike that the government – long opposed to the SOI concept – would renege. Some US units, worried about a resurgence of AQI attacks if the SOI were to be disbanded or not paid, have set aside cash to fill any initial gaps.

The saga of Dulaim is playing out against an overall uptick of violence. A female suicide bomber killed five on Monday in the provincial capital, Baquba. In Baghdad, three died in explosions on Tuesday; 28 were killed the day before, when three successive blasts ripped through a market.

"We will finish and kill Al Qaeda. The key thing we need is support of the coalition," says Sheikh Mohammad Hussein, whose father and younger brother were key SOI leaders in the Dulaim area killed in the Sept. 24 ambush with Sheikh Thamir.

"I will take my father's job to protect [my village] from bad guys and fight against [AQI]," says Sheikh Hussein of the district 20 miles northeast of Baghdad. "Now Al Qaeda is very weak in this area, but there are snipers and incidents."

Sheikh Thamir once held such optimism, though Diyala Province had long been an AQI stronghold. In 2006 and 2007, no US or Iraqi troops made it along roads laced with bombs to this remote village of 300 Sunnis. AQI operated with impunity, publicly killing one man who opposed them, imposing strict new social rules, and forcing villagers into a pact to reject any US or Iraqi military presence.