Dulaim is an Iraqi village transformed. Where masked gunmen from Al Qaeda in Iraq once imposed their will with killings and even stole irrigation pumps, today numerous Iraqi Army, police, and local Sunni militia checkpoints attest to new levels of security.
But despite recently paying a high price for that shift, this village is determined not to turn back.
AQI struck in late September, killing 22 in the most lethal attack in a year in troubled eastern Diyala Province.
Instead of fear or failure, however, the unexpected response has been a recommitment to fight.
Among the dead was Sheikh Thamir Hassan Ali, the man who last year was forced by AQI to flee this village. He was then brought back in January by US Army helicopter in a predawn operation that the Monitor joined.
Sheikh Thamir's death highlights the challenges that persist across Iraq in trying to snuff out AQI – and in maintaining the morale of the Sons of Iraq (SOI), also known as Awakening guards. The US-supported Sunni militias have fought AQI, but face continued violence and an uncertain future as the government, this week, takes over paying their salaries.
The Shiite-led government was to make its first payments on Tuesday in Baghdad to more than 50,000 members of the SOI, many of them former Sunni insurgents stood up and paid for by US forces. But for months, concern has grown among Sunnis and US officers alike that the government – long opposed to the SOI concept – would renege. Some US units, worried about a resurgence of AQI attacks if the SOI were to be disbanded or not paid, have set aside cash to fill any initial gaps.
The saga of Dulaim is playing out against an overall uptick of violence. A female suicide bomber killed five on Monday in the provincial capital, Baquba. In Baghdad, three died in explosions on Tuesday; 28 were killed the day before, when three successive blasts ripped through a market.
"We will finish and kill Al Qaeda. The key thing we need is support of the coalition," says Sheikh Mohammad Hussein, whose father and younger brother were key SOI leaders in the Dulaim area killed in the Sept. 24 ambush with Sheikh Thamir.
"I will take my father's job to protect [my village] from bad guys and fight against [AQI]," says Sheikh Hussein of the district 20 miles northeast of Baghdad. "Now Al Qaeda is very weak in this area, but there are snipers and incidents."
Sheikh Thamir once held such optimism, though Diyala Province had long been an AQI stronghold. In 2006 and 2007, no US or Iraqi troops made it along roads laced with bombs to this remote village of 300 Sunnis. AQI operated with impunity, publicly killing one man who opposed them, imposing strict new social rules, and forcing villagers into a pact to reject any US or Iraqi military presence.
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."
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."
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.
"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.
"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."