Masked militants of Al Qaeda in Iraq have been defeated – for the moment – in their battle to control this frontline farming village. For two years, this remote outpost 20 miles northeast of Baghdad, endured an Al Qaeda presence that imposed its will with killings and intimidation, forcing one sheikh out of town a few months ago.
Last week, that same sheikh returned with a US Army Cavalry unit backed by an Iraqi Army battalion. He had persuaded the Americans that his people were "desperate" to create a US-funded militia to take on Al Qaeda in Iraq.
But Sheikh Thamir Hassan Ali miscalculated, underestimating Al Qaeda's fearful grip. The imam at the Dulim mosque refused to cooperate, adamant that setting up a Concerned Local Citizens (CLC) group would be a "declaration of war" against Al Qaeda. Only days before, militants had come, warning villagers that "collaborators" would die.
The story of how this village weighed the risks and eventually chose to side with the Americans – after days of rancorous debate and prodding by US officers, the safety of their families and survival of the village in the balance – shows in microcosm how Al Qaeda is losing ground across Iraq. But it also illustrates the challenges faced by US and Iraqi forces as they sweep across parts of Iraq long under militant sway, making promises of support and armed backup that villagers have heard many times in the past, with little positive result. The current four-province offensive has "caused significant damage" to Al Qaeda and killed 130 militants, the US Army commander for northern Iraq Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling said yesterday.
Shortly before the pre-dawn US helicopter ride back to his village of Dulim last week, the beaming Sunni sheikh asserted, "People are so desperate to set up CLCs here, to protect their families. They need someone to be on their side. Absolutely this is a war against Al Qaeda. We are against them."
But the fear was palpable in the frigid muddy village, as dawn heralded a critical choice for villagers. The new American and Iraqi military presence – ushered in by the black-robbed Sheikh Thamir – was initially seen as raising the danger level.
"If anyone registers for CLCs, [Al Qaeda in Iraq] will put them in the road and kill them," lamented one man, standing outside the school where villagers were supposed to sign up for the civilian militia. Only one person made the commitment that day. "We are afraid. We don't have enough weapons to protect ourselves, and with this gun I can't protect myself against mortars."
He had just received a text message on his cellphone: 150 members of Al Qaeda are gathering in a nearby district, ready for revenge. He heard of another town where "Al Qaeda in five minutes killed everyone, including women breastfeeding. They destroyed that town completely. We don't want to repeat that."
US Army Capt. Dustin Heumphreus, commander of Arrow Troop, 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, tried to calm the man – and a host of others milling about in the background – using as examples several other towns made safe by effective CLCs. He also noted that now the US and Iraqi military presence itself had broken any deal the town may have had with Al Qaeda. Their best choice was to join the CLCs.
"The whole process depends upon brave men willing to stand up and defend against Al Qaeda," said Captain Heumphreus. "We will eventually leave. When we do, what will be left in place? What is stronger, one man with an AK-47? Or a whole village coming together in a coordinated defense?"
The CLC concept, also called Sahwa or "Awakening" elsewhere in Iraq, spread last year throughout Sunni areas with heavy insurgent activity and is one reason violence has dropped nationwide. Elsewhere in Diyala Province, which has long been an Al Qaeda in Iraq stronghold, US forces have been surprised by the scale of turnout for CLCs. The $350-a-month salary – $450 for shift leaders – is a draw. Fatigue with insurgent brutality plays a role, too.
But the numbered green sashes CLC participants wear also make them targets. Here in prevaricating Dulim, the sashes were seen as a potential death warrant if too few signed up. After the first CLC registration attempt failed, the US captain privately took Sheikh Thamir to task.
"If I leave now, all we've achieved is a grand homecoming for you," Heumphreus told the sheikh. "If you don't stand up and keep the roads open, what will keep Al Qaeda from killing everybody?"
"The job you did was great, and I thank you for it!" pleaded the sheikh, his eyes watering up. "Some people still have fear in their chests. Please understand."
Even the soldiers tasked with creating the CLCs recognize that mustering yet another armed group in Iraq is controversial.
"Granted, it's working short term, but it's a short-term fix to a long-term problem," says a US intelligence officer who asked not to be named. "Once we pull out of here, it's just aiding ethnic violence. It looks good on paper ... violence is down 10-fold. But ...they are still attacking us."
"Sure it looks like a militia and smells like a militia, but we really are trying to tie them to the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police," says Capt. Timothy Gillett, executive officer of Arrow Troop. Armed CLCs are not meant to stray from their checkpoints. "It's a contract. It's security, but untrained. You have a kindergarten-level Blackwater," he says referring to the largest US private security contractor.
Vacillating by the people of Dulim meant that Heumphreus made a decision to extend the three-day operation for himself and one of three platoons, recognizing that the CLC effort would fail otherwise. An Iraqi unit also decided to stay on, boosting confidence among villagers that they would not again find themselves isolated.
Reminders of the dangers are close. A suicide bomber Tuesday struck a school in the provincial capital of Baqubah, killing one and wounding 21. In the neighboring province of Salahuddin on Monday, a suicide bomber targeted a funeral, killing 18.
Dulim has been cut off for more than two years by roadside bombs and therefore beyond easy reach of US and Iraqi troops. The village has had to fend for itself, and follow Al Qaeda rules. One young man says he was told at gunpoint to stop trimming his beard, and to hike his dishdasha robe higher around his ankles, in the custom of Sunni fundamentalists.
Masked gunmen made regular visits, he says, often surrounding the mosque to challenge the imam, who eventually hired his own crew of 10 guards so he could finish his sermons. "You are the only village that does not help us, so you are against us," says the man, quoting the militants. "None of your sons join us. You are with the Americans. You are with Sahwa."
One farmer finally ran out of patience three months ago when Al Qaeda members tried to steal the water pump used to irrigate his fields. Munir Rabiyeh Abdu-Monem shot one of the militants and wounded two others. Days later, Al Qaeda returned, grabbed the farmer, and called the whole village around to watch.
"Whoever pulls a gun on us, this is what will happen," declared one militant, before shooting three bullets into the farmer's head. In this town he is now considered a "martyr."
"We call him a hero, because he's the only one who raised his gun," says the young man. "Everybody has his picture in his pocket."
On the third morning in the village, the American captain met with the imam and village elders and reminded them of Martyr Munir. Sunnis in western Iraq "decided they did not want outsiders telling them how they should dress, how they should act," Heumphreus told the men. "Unless you stand with a common defense, you will be weak."
The imam listened to the speech, and replied that past appeals for government help went unanswered. American promises of two years ago went unfulfilled. "So we tried with all our strength and all our wisdom to protect the people," the imam said. "We had a lot of dark days. God gave us the breath to survive."
In the warmth of the morning sun, the imam finally agreed that the men would join the CLC. But by dusk, only seven had signed up, gingerly putting on their bright sashes and praying for a larger turnout.
The American decision to stay a few more days in Dulim tipped the balance. By Tuesday of this week, 60 men had joined the CLCs in Dulim and were manning three checkpoints around the town. So far, Al Qaeda has not responded.
"The power [of the people] is bigger than what Al Qaeda was expecting," Sheikh Thamir said Tuesday, contacted by phone. US and Iraqi forces remain for the time being. "People are happy, and have started to work again on their farms. I hope other villages will make the same decision, to release people from the fear of Al Qaeda."