BAQOUBA, Iraq – For much of the past two years, this violence-torn provincial capital northeast of Baghdad has been a trouble spot for U.S. forces. Now they see it as an opportunity.
On Saturday, local U.S. commanders called the leaders of Diyala province’s factions and sects to a meeting, pushing them to air their differences with the Iraqi government, their complaints with the U.S.-led military coalition and any gripes with one another.
The get-together, in a hotbed of the Iraqi insurgency, featured members of Iraq’s three main groups: Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Kurds, who are mostly Sunni. Unlike much of the Sunni-dominated areas between Baghdad and the Kurdish north, Diyala is a melting pot that reflects the ethnic mix of the country at large.
The meeting, attended by 40 to 50 elders, was an attempt to let local leaders vent disputes in hopes of creating momentum for broader goals shared by the U.S. and Iraqi governments: replacing violence with economic and political stability.
The tribal sheiks and community leaders showed up ready to air their grievances. They complained of frequent blackouts, downed power lines, heavy-handed police and a lack of jobs. They noted the deep potholes caused by bombs and U.S. forces’ heavy armor.
“The purpose of the meeting is we want to unite the people of this province,” said Sheik Nouri Hadi Al Sumaddi, a prominent local Sunni. “The situation is better (lately). The number of crimes or insurgency operations has gone down.”
As recently as last week, Iraqi authorities thought Al Sumaddi was part of the insurgency. He was arrested Tuesday by Iraqi army forces. At Saturday’s meeting, he complained that he was beaten by Iraqi forces before being handed over to U.S. troops, who questioned and released him.
“They beat the hell out of him,” said his friend and fellow Sunni, Sheik Sa’ad Ismael Al Qasi. Al Qasi credited U.S. forces for showing restraint in Diyala. “People notice the way the coalition forces treat people, which is much better than the way our forces treat our people.”
To create a safe environment for the Baqouba meeting, U.S. forces set up a mini-Green Zone around the blue-domed provincial office building. They blocked off streets and built a perimeter with concrete barriers and armored vehicles. Meeting attendees had to stow their weapons outside and submit to searches.
The precautions were warranted. As the meeting got under way Saturday morning, a suicide bomber blew himself up a few blocks away, killing one Iraqi soldier and wounding two others.
Much of the gathering focused on complaints about Iraqi troops. Most Iraqi soldiers in the area are Shiites, a source of friction in Diyala, which is 40 percent Sunni, 35 percent Shiite, 20 percent Kurd and 5 percent a mix of other ethnic and religious groups.
Gen. Haid Ibrahim, commander of the 4,600 Iraqi Army troops in the area, assured those at the meeting that his troops would show more respect toward anyone taken into custody. Ibrahim, a former officer in Saddam Hussein’s army, then told his men that to treat arrestees badly would mean “there is no difference between you and Saddam.”
Later, Ibrahim gave a different bottom line: “Everyone that threatens security in Diyala should be killed,” he said.
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