As the US military continues to move through Diyala Province to uproot Al Qaeda fighters hidden amid its villages, an emerging foe may be helping to erode many of the successes the Americans are having in the three-week-old operation "Arrowhead Ripper."
According to Iraqi soldiers and US officers, militants linked to Al Qaeda are using tribal and family connections and, in some cases, also providing financial incentives to members of the Iraqi Army to help them remain strong and evade capture.
Al Qaeda's position is also bolstered by a broader internecine sectarian struggle for survival, power, and resources between Sunnis and Shiites that has spilled into the Army itself. This fight within Iraqi security services often pits elements of the Army against the Shiite-dominated police force.
In interviews with Iraqi soldiers from the battalion based in Khalis, about 10 miles northwest of the provincial capital Baquba, some troops allege that Sunni and Shiite officers cooperate, respectively, with Al Qaeda-linked militants and Shiite militias. They say that this ranges from turning a blind eye to illegal checkpoints to actually facilitating the transit of weapons, ammunition, and cash through the checkpoints manned by the Iraqi Army.
A US Army officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, goes even further.
"There have been reports of Iraqi Army units transporting weapons for militias and insurgents in military vehicles," he says, adding that some officers even receive money from truckers in return for assurances that the roads on which their convoys travel will be protected.
For example, six Sunni officers in the Iraqi Army battalion in Khalis hail from the prominent Sunni Arab Obeidi tribe. They are accused by Shiite officers in the battalion, and even by some fellow Sunni soldiers, of being on the payroll of fellow Obeidi Khaled Albu-Abali, a former senior officer in Saddam Hussein's army, who is suspected to have links to Al Qaeda in Iraq.
"Yes, some Sunnis in our battalion are sympathetic to these elements because they still cannot accept an Iraq where Shiites have power," says Maj. Hussein Kadhim.
In an interview, three of the Sunni officers deny the charges and accuse some of their Shiite comrades of running death squads and manning illegal checkpoints in cooperation with the recently formed Khalis Emergency Response Force (ERF), a mostly Shiite paramilitary group, and the Khalis Shiite mayor, Uday Adnan, to cleanse the whole area of Sunnis.
Maj. Wissam Hamid admits, though, that some Sunni villages in Diyala have sought the protection of Al Qaeda operatives against Shiite militias and warns that more will do the same if the militias are not reined in.
These competing interests and allegiances – that often get in the way of the American mission in Diyala to defeat Al Qaeda forces – were on full display here last Thursday.
While Iraqi officers were having lunch, Maj. Faisal Majid, a Sunni, received a call on his cellphone. The person on the other end told him that a mob, backed by a local paramilitary group, had descended on the homes of the Albu-Abali Sunni family. The group was about to loot and set the properties on fire, the caller said.
US Army Maj. Dom Dionne, who is part of the team working with the Iraqi battalion in Khalis, rushed to the scene. When he arrived with his men, not a single shop in the area was open. A police pickup truck blocked a side street where the Albu-Abali homes are located. Members of the ERF, a Shiite paramilitary group dressed in green camouflage and red berets, stood on street corners.
Major Dionne was greeted by the ERF leader Col. Hussein Hamham. One of Colonel Hamham's men showed off a sword that was found in the home of Khaled Albu-Abali. Many in Khalis say he's now a senior leader in the Islamic State in Iraq – an Al Qaeda umbrella group – who goes by the pseudonym Abu Walid al-Shami.
"They used this to kill Shiites," says the policeman.
Hamham assures Dionne that his men had simply gone into the homes for a routine search. The next day, all six homes were looted and set on fire. Iraqi security forces did little to stop it.
Dionne suspects it was the work of the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in retaliation for attacks on the homes of Shiites east of Khalis a few days before.
There is no proof that Albu-Abali is a member of Al Qaeda, says Dionne, but the episode is just one of many examples of the sectarian disputes involving Iraqi security forces that the US Army often finds itself having to navigate.
"The military goes through a vetting process to ensure that the soldiers are not known criminals or insurgents, but there is no process after that to screen them periodically to make sure they have not turned or started supporting criminals and terrorists," says Dionne.He says that is the responsibility of the sovereign Iraqi government and not the US Army. "With our current manning, it's not feasible," he adds.
Furthermore, the US military cannot put too much pressure on Sunni tribes in Diyala because, according to the Arrowhead Ripper commander, Gen. Mick Bednarek, it needs them to renounce Al Qaeda, provide intelligence, and encourage their sons to join the police and Army.