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Suspected supporters of Iraq's insurgency voice distrust, anger

BAQOUBA, Iraq—Wednesday was billed as "peace day" by the governor of Diyala province, and its goal was simple enough: Persuade people suspected of supporting the insurgency here to come over to the government's side. In return, the government would help solve the problems that supposedly drove them to the insurgents.

Instead, the day became a window on the difficulty that officials here face in trying to undercut the insurgency. Rather than sign a pledge to back the government, most of those taking part in "peace day" voiced distrust for a government installed by Americans. Some were open in their support for the insurgency.

"Is it right that somebody is trying to tarnish my reputation?" asked Sheik Walid al Rujail, 50, who said police had raided his home repeatedly and yet no one had ever told him why his name appears on a list of suspected supporters of the insurgents.

Al Rujail was one of dozens of suspected insurgent sympathizers invited to the governor's house Wednesday for the peace day ceremony.

The invitees were led into a grand room where a large banner greeted them. Someone served them coffee. On the chairs were forms for the suspected sympathizers to sign promising to forsake violence in return for government help.

Gov. Abdulla al Jubori said he hoped that the effort, the third and final peace day, would reduce violence on Jan. 30, when Iraqis are scheduled to vote in the country's first free election in decades.

Diyala province, with its capital at Baqouba, remains one of Iraq's most volatile and unpredictable regions. It's a mix of all the sects and ethnicities that make up the country—Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Kurds and Turkmens—and home to many former members of Saddam Hussein's army. Before the war, residents of Diyala were called "Saddam's women" because they adored their man, never speaking out against him.

Even today, there's little sign of support for the government and almost no election campaigning. The largest sign on display in this city bears an uncomplimentary reference to the interim prime minister: "Ayad Allawi is an agent of the Americans."

Fourteen attempts have been made on al Jubori's life since he became governor nearly two years ago. He's convinced that insurgents are former army members now unemployed and siding with the insurgency for cash, rather than principle.

Few of his guests seemed afraid to denounce the government. One by one they stood in front of a panel of provincial officials and talked about the shame of losing their jobs, how many months they'd been unemployed and how the new army and police disrespected their community.

Al Jubori, who spent years in Manchester, England, as an exile, passionately defended the police and army. He reprimanded the residents for allowing attacks to happen, particularly when they lied to protect insurgents. He said the police and military had a right to defend themselves. And he said no one wanted the U.S.-led coalition forces to stay in the province.

"We should work together in the highest way or we will all pay the price," he said. "Help us so I can tell the coalition forces, `Thank you. We don't need you.' "

Few were persuaded.

Ahmed al Obeidi, 32, didn't dispute the accuracy of the list that named him as an insurgent. When a government official talked about the damage the insurgency had done to the community, he sat back in his chair, nervously shaking his leg.

When someone such as al Rujail explained the anger he felt, al Obeidi sat up in his chair, listening attentively.

"I came to the last two conferences. They promised us peace, reconciliation and jobs, but we saw none of it," al Obeidi said. "We reject the elections. No one will vote because of the American presence. In any case, no one on these lists (of candidates) represents me. Most of them arrived on American tanks."

He didn't sign the form, he said, because he can't promise that he won't attack the occupation forces.

Al Jubori couldn't say how many signed the forms, but he extended the deadline until Thursday, hoping that more people would.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.