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Saddam's presence felt in Diala, last bastion of unconquered Iraq

SHAHARABAN, Iraq—Townspeople found the Arabic scrawl on the wall at sunup Tuesday, written, apparently, by some Saddam Hussein loyalist in this town not far from the Iranian border.

"Saddam is our president—and he is with us," it said in a dusty brown square that until recently had framed a five-foot-tall portrait of Saddam. Other graffiti offered a similarly chilling reminder:

"Saddam lives."

A mile away, Iranian fighters of the Mujahadin el Khalq, which had trained for decades in Iraq as Saddam's special guests, have set up a series of checkpoints over the Ruz River, training Russian-made machine guns mounted on Toyota pickups at passing motorists.

This is the heartland of Diala Province, population 1.2 million, and the last known corner of Iraq still unconquered by U.S. forces.

Nearly a month after Baghdad fell, an American infantry brigade is still an hour's drive away, at a command center at a captured Iraqi airfield outside Baquba, the provincial capital of 120,000 people.

Meantime, the northern frontier is fraught with a hodge-podge of new and old loyalties—armed to the teeth and firing blasts of gunfire through the night, an "Arabian Nights" version of the Wild, Wild West.

There are Arab Shiites who hated Saddam and found sanctuary in Iran, but since the start of the recent war have poured home across a suddenly porous Iran-Iraq border. Called the Badr Brigades, they seek to build an Islamic state on the ruins of Saddam's steel-fisted secular regime.

There are Iranians, Shiites too, who hated the Ayatollahs and got special status and protection from Saddam's Baath Party in their shared goal of toppling Iran's Islamic regime. They wear neatly pressed brown uniforms and call themselves the Mujahadin el Khalq. The MEK is considered a terror group by the State Department, but a month ago reached a cease-fire agreement with U.S. forces here covering an estimated 10,000 Iranians.

There are Baath Party members and sympathizers who came here when Baghdad fell. Every family has one in and around Diala's Khanaquin district, a mixture of Shiites and Jabouri tribesmen who are Sunnis, townspeople say. Some have already returned to their jobs in Baquba, according to U.S. soldiers seeking to restore power supplies and establish security there as a first footprint on the province.

And there have also been incursions by raiding Kurds from northwest of here, hijacking Baath Party cars and shooting up the town until townspeople picked up abandoned Iraqi army weapons to battle them away before the Badr settled into the city and the MEK squatted on the outskirts.

With no U.S. forces around, a visit to the fruit and vegetable market Tuesday morning found about every third boy and man shouldering an assault rifle—spare AK-47 ammo clips stuffed in the belts of their traditional robes.

Beside a tomato stall, a 9-year-old boy was peddling dozens of looted Iraqi Army boots from a huge pile haphazardly dumped near a street corner, collecting 15 cents a pair and not even flinching when gunfire echoed in the air.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces that arrived in Baquba with upward of 3,000 troops two weeks ago, are trying to sort out who is shooting at their armored convoys as they rumble through the city.

"We've been shot at every night," said U.S. Army Capt. Josh Felker of the 4th Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade.

So who is shooting at them?

"It's kind of a crock-pot of everything—the Baath, the Badr and, depending on how the cease-fire agreement goes, the MEK," he said.

"No one's really been here. From what I understand, the Marines blew right through," he said.

When soldiers come under gunfire, he said, they fire back and withdraw. No enemy bodies have been recovered yet to help them identify the attackers, although forces have gone back during the light of day and discovered blood trails.

U.S. forces also are trying to sort out the gun battles that seem to break out nightly as, Army intelligence suspects, the different factions vie to fill the power vacuum left by the sudden collapse of Saddam's regime April 9.

Certainly, there is a power struggle.

In Shaharaban, the Badr forces are rallying support, especially from half of the population who are Shiites, as they set up an Islamic party to exploit a U.S. promise of a post-Saddam Iraqi democracy.

"Some people here do still love Saddam Hussein. The Baath now are very peaceful," reported a farmer named Fadl Ali. "But the Badr Brigades are very popular now, because they are Iraqi and Shiite, especially around Khalis."

And in Baquba, a 17-year Shiite exile named Zuhayr Saadala describes himself as a former Iran-based Badr fighter now establishing a branch political office on behalf of an exiled Shiite cleric, Mohammed Bakr al Hakim.

"I want the people to live under an Islamic regime, and want to use the media and speech to convince them of it," he said, adding that the Islamic movements want nothing to do with the coalition forces.

"The Americans did a great job when they toppled Saddam Hussein," he said, adding that they should leave the region before they "turn their stay here into occupation."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.