In the pursuit of an elusive enemy the US loosely labels AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq), US Green Berets and soldiers in this remote corner of Iraq have enlisted the help of a new ally that they have christened LRF, the "Legitimate Resistance Force."
It includes ex-insurgents, police dropouts with checkered backgrounds, and former Al Qaeda-linked fighters – all united by a desire to rid Diyala Province of the network's influence, say US officers.
"A lot of them are former Al Qaeda operatives ... but when they saw the stealing, murder, and terrorism, they realized it was not the way forward for Iraq," says Maj. John Woodward of San Antonio.
But the risks of such a temporary solution are high, say critics, and the plan could foster new, powerful militias outside the control of the Iraqi Army. It's a strategy that also threatens to further fuel sectarian battles as LRFs are largely Sunni, posing a major threat to Shiite militias.
So far, however, it is too early to judge the effectiveness of this new group, but its creation clearly demonstrates a desire by the US to look for grass-roots solutions amid increasing frustration with the combat readiness – and even loyalty – of Iraqi forces.
It also seems to indicate that the Americans are willing to take a short-term gamble on the LRFs in order to show some successes in the fight against AQI before September, when a highly anticipated progress report on Iraq is due to Congress.
The idea for LRFs was born out of the links US troops have sought to foster with Iraqi tribal leaders in Diyala Province as part of the US-led offensive "Arrowhead Ripper," which has been under way here for about a month.
But the LRF initiative has little in common with the high-profile tribal Anbar Salvation Council, which was formally endorsed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and helped reduce violence there. Mr. Maliki has backed a Diyala version of that group called the Isnad (support) Council, but it has had much less impact due to the more fragmented nature of Diyala's tribal, ethnic, and sectarian makeup.
Maliki warned US forces last month against creating new militias in their fight against Al Qaeda-linked operatives. He insisted that all collaboration with local groups must be done through his government.
"What the Americans are doing is very risky and unwise. They are planting the seeds for future wars," warned Sami al-Askari, a parliamentarian close to Maliki, commenting on groups like the LRF.
After a raid, holding the ground
Early last week, the US bombed suspected AQI hideouts and several bridges over the Diyala River that were said to be used by the militants in the farmlands of Sherween, about 35 miles northeast of Baquba. On the ground, about 200 Iraqi and US soldiers along with members of the LRF clashed with militants in Rabie Najem, a Sherween-area village.
The US military said it killed 20 "Al Qaeda terrorists" and detained 20 in the operation, which it qualified as a success.
"It's very important that we go back and take control of our area. After [the US military] helped us, we need to hold the terrain. I have 40 of my guys waiting for me," says Najem Abdullah, one of the LRF members, in an interview at the US base Normandy the day after the bombing raid.
Mr. Abdullah and three of his comrades, all Sunnis from the Jubour tribe, were brought back to the base after the operation to talk to a US special forces team, which is charged with vetting them and supplying them with ammunition, according to officers in the 6th Squadron of the US Army's 9th Cavalry Regiment stationed at Normandy.
Mr. Abdullah is a former policeman and said he once collaborated with insurgent groups like the 1920 Revolution Brigades, one of the earliest Sunni Arab insurgent groups that fought US presence after the invasion. His friend Mazen Hamid is also a former Iraqi police officer and said that several of his relatives have joined the ranks of the Al Qaeda-linked militants and that they were being paid about $300 per operation.
"This is a lot of money for people in our villages who are groveling from poverty," says Raad Abed, another member of the group.
They described how the Al Qaeda-linked fighters, many of them masked and clad in black and wearing headbands bearing the words "Islamic State in Iraq," raided several villages in Sherween 10 days ago, blowing up homes and killing anyone associated with the government.
The militants extorted about $3,000 from one wealthy local sheikh and took over mosques broadcasting over loud speakers: "Long live the Islamic State in Iraq," according to Mr. Hamid.
Most of them were indigenous fighters with a few Arab nationals among them, says Hamid. This matched the assessment of several US Army officers in the area.
Hamid said that out of an original population of about 400 only 40 men from Rabie Najem are left. His own wife fled farther north, and he might join her soon if the campaign to reclaim their village fails.
Last week, neither he nor his 40 LRF comrades were able to return to their village. It is now in the grips of AQI militants, who even rebuilt, within hours, all the footbridges destroyed by the US aerial bombardment just two days before, according to Col. Mahmoud Tayeh, the police chief in the Sherween area's main town, Dalli Abbas.
Fear of the militants has also crept up to Dalli Abbas itself. Nearly 100 of the 180 policemen in town quit after the mutilated body of one of their colleagues was found outside the station. Attached to it was a succinct handwritten message: "Quit or you're next."
Colonel Tayeh says that the fleeing policemen took with them AK-47s and pistols, and added that "some of them were coerced to join the terrorists."
The remaining policemen slept at the station. When they ventured out to the town's potholed and garbage-littered streets, they wore black ski masks for fear of being identified by militants. And, in a further twist, some of these same holdouts are suspected of being on the payroll of Al Qaeda militants, says Tayeh.
These ever-shifting allegiances and the fine line between friend and foe provide a hint of the dangers associated with this new US strategy despite its short-term viability.
"The long-term problem is that you are working with fractured social forces," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Queen Mary, University of London.
"The danger is that once they run Al Qaeda out, they may turn on you, the Iraqi government, or both."
Lt. Col. Keith Gogas, who commands the Diyala-based 6-9 Army unit, agrees with the concept of the LRF, but says he thinks the term itself may be problematic. He's working to cement local ties in other creative ways.
Last Friday, he reunited a local tribal sheikh with his nephew, whom he helped get released from a US-run prison after the man had been detained for nearly 10 months on suspicion of being a member of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia and committing crimes against Sunnis in Diyala.
"You see how loyal and truthful the Americans are," says Sheikh Saad al-Siriwati to his kinsmen as he puts his arm around Colonel Gogas. "My tribe and I are eternally indebted to Gogas."
Abu Saida, the predominantly Shiite town of Shiekh Saad, has come a long way from being one of the most violent in Diyala to the most cooperative with US forces in the fight against extremists.
But just as the line between friend and foe is murky so, too, is the division between war and peace.
As Gogas and his men returned to their base, they encountered Iraqi policemen on the road who reported an attack on the mixed village of Harbitla in which 12 Shiites were killed. Separately, the commander of the Iraqi Army battalion who the Americans had been working with was killed by a roadside bomb.