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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.

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When Sheikh Thamir returned with US and Iraqi forces in January, his neighbors at first rejected them, saying that AQI had warned days before that "collaborators" would die. After days of pushing – sometimes with tears in his eyes from fear – Sheikh Thamir prevailed, joyfully declaring that the "power [of the people] is bigger than what Al Qaeda was expecting."

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When the men of Dulaim finally agreed to don fluorescent green reflective belts and man checkpoints, much of AQI's weapons and money traffic from the unruly east side of the Diyala River dried up.

It also turned Al Qaeda fully against the village.

"If we quit, Al Qaeda will kill us," says Talib Ali Hussein, an SOI guard with a rifle and sun-bleached sash at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Dulaim. The recent AQI ambush was "a message from Al Qaeda that 'We are still here.' The key thing is they want to kill us."

"We want to protect ourselves and our country," says Hamid Khatan Hussein, another guard standing beside the sand-filled barriers. "No one has quit. Now we are [unified and act] as one hand."

A setup by AQI

The AQI ambush was designed to instill fear, and appears to have been a setup, according to US officers who work regularly in the area but were not told in advance of an Iraqi police plan to check out a tip about a weapons cache in an area of thick palm forest called the Azzawi Orchards, just north of Dulaim.

The police asked Sheikh Thamir, Sheikh Hussein, and others with local knowledge to join them, though the police unit – new to the area, and uncertain whom to trust – did not permit the Sunni SOI guards to take their weapons.

With trails in the vegetation channeling the patrol to a particular spot, the men stepped into a well-prepared, close-range AQI ambush. Some 14 police and eight SOI were killed; only three survived.

Sheikh Thamir's wife angrily blames US forces, though they had no forewarning of the Iraqi bid to find the weapons caches – an increasingly common phenomenon as Iraqi forces expand and conduct their own operations.

"Now you come here!" cried the sheikh's wife, Iman Khazali. "Why don't you support [Sheikh Thamir] when he went to Azzawi Orchards? It's very [messed] up. Why are you late, after my husband was killed?

"When coalition forces were looking for Saddam Hussein, they looked in every meter of Iraq and found him," said Mrs. Iman, tearfully sitting in the house that US troops used as a base when they arrived in January. "Now the coalition is afraid, and [would] not go to Azzawi, that little bit of land?"

"You must expect danger," said Sheikh Thamir's brother, Abdallah Hassan Ali, trying to console her. "When we work in this way, we are ready to give ourselves, to be killed."

Mr. Abdallah himself was shot in the stomach this year. He says that before Sheikh Thamir was killed, he heard of a meeting of insurgents where they decided to cross the river to stage attacks. It is not easy terrain, and has always been an AQI ratline.

"We were up there constantly, but once you get along the river, you could have checkpoints every five feet, and still they would get across, especially at night," says 1st Lt. Andrew Van Den Hoek, whose platoon of the 4th Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment worked extensively in the area for half a year. "This is one of the downsides of autonomy. We don't always receive word when they are going to do an operation."