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Baqubah is still ‘a work in progress’

Times Staff Writer

baqubah, iraq -- Iraq’s deputy prime minister flew here Sunday under heavy guard with promises of food, jobs and cash for a city emerging from the sway of Sunni Arab militants largely driven out by U.S.-led troops. What he got was an earful.

Men in long white dishdashas pushed past the crush of bodyguards, soldiers, aides and journalists that surrounded Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih in a market street, demanding to know when food rations would arrive from Baghdad and when government pensions would be paid.

Young, veiled women told him that they had risked their lives to sit through university exams in an area where Iraqi soldiers once dared not go and that they still had not received their test results. Employees at a state-run electrical plant said their salaries went unpaid for months at a time. And tribal leaders gathered at the governor’s fortified office here berated him for talking about development projects when insurgents still terrorize outlying roads and villages in Diyala province.

“What you are talking about are dreams,” said Sheik Hamid Anbagiya. “First we have to stop the insurgency. Then we can talk about civil services and projects.”

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But Salih told reporters he was encouraged by what he saw in Baqubah, the provincial capital: streets full of shoppers, produce and sodas for sale in the market, and men with graying beards smoking cigarettes and sipping tea at a cafe.

A month ago, he said, the governor dared not leave his home for fear of militants who for more than a year had imposed a reign of terror in the city. “Today, we could see life returning to Baqubah,” he said.

As he spoke, gunfire erupted nearby as U.S. forces guarding the meeting took aim at a sniper who had fired at them.

“This is a work in progress, apparently,” Salih acknowledged with a shrug and a smile.

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Until President Bush ordered a troop buildup in January, U.S. commanders said they did not have enough troops to control Baqubah, a volatile mix of Sunni and Shiite Arabs and ethnic Kurds. Sunni insurgents fought battles with Shiite militias and the U.S. military.

Last year, the Sunni militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq declared Baqubah the capital of its self-styled Islamic caliphate. Masked gunmen paraded through some neighborhoods in trucks. They set up an Islamic court and prisons, ordered women to cover themselves in full-length black robes and banned smoking. The group’s leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, died in a U.S. airstrike just outside the city a year ago.

With the additional troops that began arriving in the city in March, U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweep to drive out the insurgents. They found roads riddled with bombs and houses rigged to explode, including a block of buildings filled with explosives daisy-chained together.

Four U.S. soldiers were killed Aug. 6 in the city when a bomb exploded in a house they were searching.

The constant troop presence has pacified large parts of Baqubah, said Army Lt. Michael Hoffman, a Stryker platoon leader with the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment.

Recently, the U.S. and Iraqi forces have been joined by members of the 1920 Revolution Brigade, Sunni insurgents who had fought under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq.

Details of the sometimes uneasy alliance are still being hammered out. But Hoffman said the former insurgents he works with have set up hide-outs in the eastern section known as Old Baqubah, from which they help U.S. and Iraqi forces identify suspects and locate weapons caches.

Hoffman allows them to use weapons to defend their bases but not on patrols. And they have been issued reflective belts to help identify them to avert accidental shootings.

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, has expressed concern about the strategy, which was inspired by the creation last year of a tribal alliance in Al Anbar credited with helping to reduce violence in the western province, a former Al Qaeda in Iraq stronghold. He has warned that it in effect legitimizes Sunni militias that could turn their guns against his government.

But Salih, a Kurd, said the government welcomes any group prepared to work in a legal manner against Al Qaeda in Iraq.

U.S. commanders say they collect the names, photographs, fingerprints and retinal scans of all the former insurgents they work with and require that they agree to a set of rules. They hope to eventually integrate many of these auxiliary forces into the understaffed Iraqi police force.

U.S. officials said Salih’s trip was an important first step toward restoring often-troubled relations between the province and the central government.

Officials in Baghdad “will sit in a nice air-conditioned place and say everything you want to hear,” said John Jones, head of the U.S. reconstruction team in Diyala. “But action is a different thing. That is why it is so good to get people up here.”

Many residents here relied on the monthly food rations that they had received from the central government since the 1990s but have gone without for most of the last 18 months. In desperation, the U.S. military sent a convoy of armored Stryker vehicles to Baghdad in late June to collect bags of rice, flour and cooking oil.

“It basically was a force of arms going down there saying, ‘Give us the food,’ ” Jones said. Since then, he said, deliveries have become more regular.

What many Sunnis here see as obstruction by the Shiite-led central government Jones blamed on a highly centralized bureaucracy that is ill-equipped to deal with provincial needs.

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Salih assured tribal leaders Sunday that the government would compensate residents for the food they hadn’t received, though he said that it would take time. Members of his delegation, which included a number of Cabinet members, said that the government had contractors lined up to deliver the supplies but that many drivers were too afraid to go to Diyala.

The government also has set aside $50 million to compensate residents for damage suffered during the recent fighting and an additional $30 million to help revitalize businesses, create jobs and support farmers, Salih said.

But the sheiks who crowded the governor’s stifling office, dabbing at the sweat trickling down their faces with tissues, were not appeased.

“I have had 50 people killed in my [extended] family!” shouted Sheik Saad Majid Suraiwat. “I came to the provincial capital in four Iraqi army Humvees. . . . I go home, and there is nobody there, because my family is all displaced.”

Salih said that the security offensive in Baqubah was just the beginning and that the government would not rest until the entire province was safe.

U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a series of raids in northern Diyala early Sunday, in pursuit of Sunni insurgents, an Iraqi general said in a statement. A number of insurgents were detained or killed, Brig. Gen. Anwar Hamad Ameen said.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com


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