Iraqi forces move en masse against insurgent hotbed

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 12, 2008 

BAQOUBA, Iraq — Police said the blindfolded old man who'd urinated in his pants was an al Qaida in Iraq killer, and they held him up for the cameras. He said he was a goldsmith named Hussein Aiz Ali and that police were treating him well, though they hadn't told him his alleged crime. "I have diabetes," he said just before police walked him — carried him, actually, since he seemed to be having trouble walking — to an interrogation cell.

Then they made victory signs with their fingers, and the assembled news media moved in for close-ups. More than 600 arrests of high-level and not-so-high-level al Qaida in Iraq suspects have been made here in the last two weeks. There've been some major rough spots — insurgents have mounted at least three lethal attacks against Iraqi security forces, and they tried to kill the provincial governor Tuesday — but it seems that Operation Glad Tidings, which brought more than 30,000 Iraqi troops and policemen into Baqouba and the surrounding countryside of Diyala province, is moving from the clear-and-hold phase to the public relations phase. The message of the perp walks, reinforced by air-dropped leaflets and daily public appearances by Gen. Ali Ghaidan, the commander of Iraqi ground troops, is this: Iraqi security forces own the streets again. (The U.S. military still has a good-sized military base here, but is playing only a supporting role in the operation. American and Iraqi commanders meet at night on an Iraqi base miles outside town.) It's a message that almost everyone here wants to hear, or says he does, now that Iraqi soldiers and policemen are standing on every corner.

Last year, Baqouba was a center of Sunni Muslim insurgency, and for years before that it was so far beyond the law that officials of the legitimate government huddled in a few buildings as al Qaida in Iraq's rebel Islamic State of Iraq grew around them. It was said that under its rule, "masculine" cucumbers couldn't be sold next to "feminine" tomatoes. Men were shot, decapitated or killed by drill bits to the head and then decapitated. As many as 11,000 families fled their homes, according to one tribal sheik, Mohammed Salih Alzubaidi.

"Two of my sons were policemen, and they were killed," Saleema Mohammed, 60, said at a meeting for displaced families recently in the New Baqouba neighborhood. "The third, they kidnapped him."

The remnants of her family left last year after they received a death threat; they returned earlier this summer to find their house destroyed. Mohammed hoped that the government would give her money to build a new home, and said she didn't think that the bad old days would return: "God willing, because of the government."

For now, the public face of that government isn't Diyala provincial Gov. Raad Rashid Mula Jawad but Gen. Ghaidan.

When he travels, which is often, it's in the most obvious way possible, with nearly 100 Kalashnikov-toting soldiers in 30-odd Humvees, armored Chevrolet Suburbans and pickups modified to fit rotating machine guns in back. Reporters are more than welcome to come along for the ride, and four or five always do. Roads are blocked; sirens wail; drivers who don't pull over get warned off with a gunshot into the air.

Every so often, the cavalcade screeches to a halt and everybody dismounts. The general gets out to chat with a sheik or take tea at a once-shuttered cafe, and people press in with smiles and supplications.

The security of de facto military rule is a relief, but Baqouba is a wreck. Buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes, and rubble is everywhere. As many as half of adults are without jobs. The electrical grid is shaky and water is in short supply, a potentially disastrous development for a farming region that used to be called the breadbasket of Iraq.

A $100 million reconstruction fund has been announced but not a penny of it has been spent, and the committee that will decide how to spend it doesn't exist yet.

"We are not strangers," Ghaidan said at a neighborhood meeting to 120 displaced families who were sitting before him under an awning. "We know what happened here. There is unemployment, yes. Al Qaida stopped everything — government, services — and most people got threats. We know all this. We have come to solve all these problems. Government has many gates, but the Ministry of Defense will open them for you."

The families listened appreciatively, but when the general finished and walked toward his truck, dozens of mothers in their black abayas pushed toward him. They wanted prosperity, but all that the general had to offer, for the moment, was water and boxes of rice.

"Why did you come here?" one shouted. "Why did you invite us, and now you leave us?"

(Spangler reports for The Miami Herald. Kadhim is a McClatchy special correspondent in Baghdad.)

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