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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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But the ambush caused village elders to recommit themselves to the SOI; one man offered to find another 100 young men to join. "And the ambush really forced the Iraqi Army to get in where they were legitimately needed," says Lt. Van Den Hoek.

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"We were concerned about the willingness of the SOI to continue working. I would understand if they would be deterred," says Van Den Hoek. "What they can't fathom is having AQI back in there. If they can do an atrocity like this, they can't live with them."

These villagers have been both helped and hurt by the flood of new Iraqi soldiers and police, which mounted their own "surge" starting last July, with 21,000 police already in Diyala and 12,000 Iraqi Army troops moving in. Though the "Glad Tidings of Benevolence" offensive has had sectarian overtones – Sunnis were primary targets of arrest—the extra forces are keeping Dulaim stable.

Newly fortified camp

Evidence of help is the new fortified camp on the northeast corner of Dulaim, where the Iraqi Army has dug in at a house beside the irrigation canal. That is just one of seven Iraqi Army checkpoints in the district, added to those of the SOI.

In Dulaim, Lt. Col. Saman Kadir, commander of the Iraqi Army battalion clearing the area, leans over a map with Lt. T.J. Rodebaugh, the US platoon leader whose area now included the village.

"Everywhere in this area is safety. This one I am searching now," says Lt. Col. Kadir, an ethnic Kurd. An aide brings a list of old hardware discovered in several weapons caches. Piled outside, it's mostly rusty, but still a haul.

"Terrorists are crossing the river with boats; they come across as civilians, without weapons, then use these weapons," says Kadir. The commander says the Iraqi Army is now clearing this area because of the ambush, and also because of "some gap" in Iraqi deployments.

US officers say a confused reorganization of Iraqi brigades in September helped open a window for the Dulaim attack. "With that amount of change all in one area, the IA [Iraqi Army] was not getting settled into outlying areas like Dulaim," says Sgt. First Class Carl Lewis.

Another factor, Iraqis and Americans say, may be the success of the SOI in Dulaim and recent clearing operations. "I think it's a reaction," says Maj. Tim Hunt, the US Army liaison to the provincial governor. "They are saying: 'You did all this work, and there is still not security.' And this is a problem and … the challenge."

The Dulaim strike "was a flash in the pan – it didn't change anything," says Major Hunt. "It just proved that they are not gone."

"At some point there is a level of normal violence," says Lt. Col. D.A. Sims, noting that American cities like Seattle also have a typical number of incidences such as murders. "In Diyala, we're not at an acceptable level of violence, but it's getting close."

And other issues have been at play. Sheikh Thamir was known to be trying to establish a new Baath Party. And he had been accused of taking a "sheikh's cut" from the summer, when less funding meant either cutting numbers or reducing salaries from $350 per month.

Van Den Hoek was investigating those charges at the time of the ambush, but says Thamir "kept perfect records," worked hard, and that most were "very happy with him." "Despite concerns, he was the one who brought [this] area back from Al Qaeda," says Van Den Hoek. "That can't be negated."