Residents of New Baqubah woke up Wednesday to a sight they had never seen before: hundreds of Iraqi national police officers blanketing the neighborhood in a city that until last year was a center of the Sunni Arab-driven insurgency.
For many of them, it was not a comforting sight. Most of the upscale neighborhood’s doctors, teachers and retired military officers are Sunni Muslims, and the force sent from Baghdad to protect them is overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim.
But the newly arrived police force was all business Wednesday. The battalion commander, a colonel who gave his name only as Ali, summoned community leaders to a meeting at the neighborhood police station.
“I don’t want to talk about Sunnis or Shias,” he said firmly. “We are professionals, and we work to defend Iraq from inside and out.”
Thus began the second day of an Iraqi government campaign to wrest control of Diyala province from Sunni and Shiite militants who have fought each other for years.
U.S.-led forces have conducted a series of campaigns since last year to flush insurgents from Baqubah, the provincial capital, and other centers along the Diyala River. Commanders have said they welcome the Iraqi troops, who now outnumber U.S. forces in the province about 5 to 1.
Insurgents continue to find sanctuary in the nearby palm groves and the province’s lawless outer reaches.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has sent more than 30,000 troops to help clear out the remaining fighters. But U.S. and Iraqi officers say many insurgent leaders slipped away after Maliki announced the buildup in late June.
U.S. and Iraqi forces captured at least 38 suspects and uncovered seven weapons caches in the first two days of the crackdown, according to American figures. Commanders reported no serious exchanges with the militants.
Many of the troops deployed in Diyala are veterans of Maliki’s recent crackdowns in the cities of Basra, Amarah and Mosul. The experience has left them swaggering with confidence and eager to show off their independence from the American forces.
When Lt. Col. Tony Aguto, commander of the U.S. Army’s 4th Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, asked Col. Ali what he could do to help, the man turned to the local police chief.
“If we need help, we have Col. Hameed here,” he said, with a deep laugh.
Aguto said the main thing the Iraqis had wanted from U.S. forces was air and fire support. But he said he was keeping two platoons in the neighborhood, just in case. U.S. forces are also stepping up their own operations across the province.
Some of the local Iraqi and police leaders chafed at the arrival of outside forces in an area they had fought hard to improve.
“This is unacceptable, someone coming to your house and doing everything for you,” said Brig. Gen. Hedault Zan, who commands the Iraqi army brigade responsible for New Baqubah.
The only thing that soothed his wounded pride was the fact that the general sent to assist him was an old friend. The two men huddled together at an abandoned tomato paste factory Wednesday, planning how to deploy their forces.
Members of the mostly Sunni guard force hired by U.S. troops to help protect the neighborhood against militants were on edge. Their leader, Naim Jabbar, was killed July 24 when a woman with explosives hidden under her black robe walked up to him at a used-car dealership, wrapped her arms around him and blew herself up. One of his young deputies, just 20, attended the meeting with the national police Wednesday.
“When we started this work, the men could not leave their homes. With the American forces, we have worked to ensure that men can go out and work again,” said the young guard, who asked to be identified by his first name, Ali. “We did this work to support our country. Now the government must support us.”
Col. Ali told him that some neighborhood guards, who include many former insurgents, were wanted for extortion and other crimes and would be arrested. But he said the government wanted to hire or find jobs for guards who were not suspected of serious crimes.
The Iraqi forces have concentrated on Baqubah and a stretch of villages south toward Khan Bani Saad. Their leaders promise to sweep across the province to the rugged tribal lands on the border with Iran.
In New Baqubah, Iraqi police and soldiers went door-to-door Wednesday searching for weapons and fighters in streets lined with collapsed buildings, bullet-pocked facades and mounds of garbage.
Ali Abu Bakr stood on the street where Jabbar died, watching anxiously as officers armed with AK-47s cruised up and down in pickup trucks, instructing residents through loudspeakers to keep off the roads while operations were underway.
The national police are especially feared here because the force was once heavily infiltrated by Shiite militiamen who used their uniform as cover for extrajudicial killings.
When Aguto and his patrol walked by, Abu Bakr called out to him.
“Why aren’t the Americans searching with the national police?” he demanded. “We trust you.” Aguto explained that this was an Iraqi-led operation.
“Then we are going to get killed,” Abu Bakr said flatly.
He told the Americans that he was arrested at a checkpoint in the southern city of Karbala and held for four months because the police assumed from his Diyala origins that he must be an insurgent.
“That was in the past,” Aguto said. “You got to start having faith in your own security forces.”
Others complained about the driving ban. They wanted to know when they could drive to work or get to a grocery store. Aguto said they could move around again when the Iraqis had finished searching the area.
Some residents whose homes were searched expressed surprise at how polite the forces had been.
“I have a good feeling that this operation will improve security,” said a bakery owner, who asked to be identified as Abu Ahmed, a traditional nickname. A Shiite, he said he had only recently returned to the neighborhood after being chased away by Sunni militants.
“Nobody here wants to see terrorists anymore.”