KHAN BANI SA'AD, Iraq — GI's call it "KBS" or "the Khan," and for most of the past two years, this agricultural town of 100,000 in Iraq's Diyala province was the site of fierce fighting between Sunni and Shiite Muslim extremists.
After a firefight Feb. 25 that killed at least nine insurgents, however, the Iraqi and U.S. militaries declared that al Qaida in Iraq had been pushed out of the area.
Diyala remains one of the most dangerous provinces in Iraq, but thousands of people who'd fled the region, fearing fighting between the armed forces and insurgents, returned last month to villages near the Diyala River. Local Sunni militias are forming in villages that Sunni insurgents occupied a few months ago, with the U.S. military paying recruits $10 a day.
In a small village north of Khan Bani Sa'ad, the loudest sound one recent morning was a rooster's cackles. As his platoon leader negotiated with a tribal leader, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. David Schlueter of Rome, N.Y. held his weapon in both hands and knelt in the yard.
"As boring as it gets, it's a good day," Schlueter said.
"No contact, no Strykers getting blown up, no getting killed. It's a good day," agreed Staff Sgt. Darrell Sammons of Doe Run, Ga.
Iraq remains a dangerous place. When the Iraqi government launched an offensive against the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr on March 25 in southern Iraq, U.S. forces in Diyala came under sporadic attack, apparently from Sadrists. Seven U.S. soldiers were wounded and two vehicles were damaged in attacks using sophisticated explosively formed projectiles of the sort that the Mahdi Army has used to destroy U.S. armored vehicles.
Overall, though, the American military's shift to counterinsurgency, the creation of U.S.-funded local Sunni militias and a tenuous cease-fire declared by Sadr's forces have helped reduce the violence around KBS.
Instead of kicking in doors, the soldiers of Troop B, 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division from Fort Lewis, Wash., are trying to manage the growing U.S.-backed militias and build relationships with sheiks and village leaders who not long ago were allied with the Sunni insurgency.
Diyala is still considered Iraq's third most violent province, after Baghdad and Nineweh. Breakaway elements of the Mahdi Army continue to kidnap and kill people. Recently, some U.S.-backed militias in Baqouba stopped cooperating with the American military for a month.
On March 7, a suicide bomber killed 28 people in Balad Ruz, east of Baqouba. Three days later, a roadside bomb killed three U.S. soldiers. American troops not far from there in an area known for roadside bombs fired a warning shot and mistakenly killed a young girl. On March 20, a female suicide bomber killed three people in Balad Ruz.
Until recently, the Sunni extremist group al Qaida in Iraq was thought to be using Khan Bani Sa'ad and the surrounding villages, an area along the Baghdad-Baqouba highway that's framed by the Tigris and Diyala rivers, as a staging ground for attacks on military and civilian targets in Baqouba to the north and Baghdad to the south.
A fault line runs through Khan Bani Sa'ad's midsection and the surrounding countryside, dividing the Sunni north, held until recently by Sunni Islamic extremists, and the Shiite south that borders Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City neighborhood.
As U.S. soldiers try to promote reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites, lengthy meetings, interpreters and sugary tea have replaced the anticipation and adrenaline of raiding suspected enemy territory.
However, executive officer Capt. Brett Gambacorta, of Hollywood, Md., thinks that his soldiers, who're nearly 13 months into their 15-month tour, have just started the most challenging part of their deployment.
"We could spend 15 months killing people. That's easy. What we're doing now, setting up a government, isn't," Gambacorta said.
INSURGENTS LEAVE, BUT FEAR REMAINS
Until a few months ago, U.S. troops hadn't set foot in Muridiyah, a Sunni village north of Khan Bani Sa'ad, in two years. Sunni extremists had kidnapped and killed 15 people from the village, and their bodies were later found in the Diyala River, local officials said. But now that al Qaida in Iraq had fled, the men of the village considered it safe. Volunteers joined the local U.S.-backed militia as it patrolled the town on foot, and manned checkpoints with bright red, mesh vests.
What they fear now is the Shiite militias that still terrorize "the Khan." According to the local Sunni leader, Sheik Abud Aziz Salman al Duleimy, the villagers won't go to KBS for fear of being kidnapped by breakaway members of the Mahdi Army looking for ransom.
At a meeting, Capt. Paul Godson of Waterloo, Iowa, listened to the complaint and agreed with Duleimy that Sunnis and Shiites in the area need to resolve their differences and begin building trust. But his writ went only so far.
"I can force Sunni and Shia to sit down at a table, but as soon as I turn my back they'll stop" talking, he said. The Iraqis pressed the complaint and asked what more the military could do. Godson urged them to seek a nonmilitary solution.
"It's going to come down to the Tribal Support Council, the nahia (local county government) and all the important sheiks in the area getting together and working around" the Mahdi Army, he said.
SECTARIAN DIVISIONS PERSIST
American soldiers know how fragile the situation is around Khan Bani Sa'ad.
In this farming region, many people say they don't have water in their canals to irrigate their crops. The Sunni and Shiite communities remain largely divided. Fighting and intimidation have displaced families. A female suicide bomber detonated herself in January in the city's market, killing several people, including children. Shiite police officers in KBS block many Sunnis from shopping at the markets.
It wouldn't take much to reignite clashes, the soldiers said. Iraqi army Col. Ali Mahmoud Mit'ib said he expected insurgent bomb attacks in an attempt to do so.
Shiite extremists still operate in the area in much the same way that al Qaida in Iraq did several months ago, said Mit'ib, who works closely with the U.S. military. Interviewed before the recent government offensive against Shiite militias, the Sunni colonel dismissed the extremists as "thugs" and said he was prepared to go after them. However, he said, the police in the area are largely corrupt.
Nearby Iran can be a negative influence, the colonel said. In October, B Troop found one of the largest caches of deadly explosively formed projectiles, which are thought to have come from Iran.
Outside KBS, the countryside is a patchwork of brown and green with palm trees. Tribal sheiks and mayors still run the villages where farmers grow grapes, onions and other produce.
During the nearly two years that it was cut off from the northern half of the city, the U.S. military avoided several roads, fearing bombs and snipers.
"It blew my mind. I couldn't believe there was an area we couldn't get to. The most powerful army on Earth and we couldn't go there," Capt. Godson said.
Two American soldiers were killed last summer in Khan Bani Sa'ad and another was seriously injured, and at least eight Strykers were damaged or lost. Not until Jan. 22 did Iraqi and U.S. soldiers take back the main north-south road in KBS.
Mortar rounds and rockets routinely were fired at the soldiers' outpost in the southern part of the city. Insurgents also tried to attack them with a car bomb.
"It was a pretty hostile area. They didn't want us here. They didn't think we were going to do anything," said Sgt. Pierce Senkarik, of Pensacola, Fla.
As the violence ebbed, the troops moved to an outpost just north of the city, and now they drive the main road every day. Explosions are still heard around the area, but most are caused by ordnance teams clearing the roads of bombs.
Still, the latest attacks show the volatility.
"I keep telling my guys: 'two more months, keep yourselves up and alert,' " Senkarik wrote Wednesday in an e-mail.
SUPPORT, BUT NOT WEAPONS
Capt. Adam Clifford of Lyman, Wyo., and his platoon regularly visit the leader of the 17th of July village, a Sunni enclave in Shiite territory south of KBS, and earlier this month Sheik Tareq Leftah al Ubeidi laid on a rich lunch.
Before everyone dug into the fish, chicken, rice and vegetables, Ubeidi wanted to talk business. A year ago, he said, glancing at a spiral notebook, more than 1,000 mortar rounds had hit the village, and terrorists stopped the delivery of food rations. But since the U.S. Army came to assist, the violence had stopped. In late November, 75 local men joined the U.S.-backed militia.
"Everybody here killed a lot of al Qaida," the sheik proclaimed.
But still, his people can't go north into the Khan Bani Sa'ad markets, because of the breakaway Mahdi Army elements.
"You promised me, Captain Clifford, how you would go after" the Shiite militiamen, Ubeidi said.
"We're working on that with some of the raids we've done recently," Clifford said. "It takes a while, and then they fall."
The sheik charged that some Shiite sheiks were working for Iranian intelligence and that Mahdi Army elements had infiltrated the local Iraqi police. He asked Clifford for weapons.
"I am not giving you weapons. That's not part of the contract," Clifford said.
The sheik dropped the subject.
A FEW LUCKY BREAKS
There have been some lucky breaks along the way.
For Capt. Clifford, it was a letter last year early in the troop's deployment from Sheik al Ubeidi, whose Sunni hamlet was surrounded by Shiite extremists and was also under threat from al Qaida in Iraq.
He asked for assistance. After Clifford helped him get food and water for his village, Ubeidi organized a meeting with other Sunni sheiks. It was a first step for the troops toward establishing a relationship.
Around August, the Iraqi army battalion that was paired with the U.S. troops replaced its colonel after the last one was found to be corrupt. Under Col. Mit'ib's new leadership, the Iraqi troops began to take the lead on joint missions and did many more on their own. In early September, Iraqi and American soldiers took a neighborhood near the center of KBS that had been abandoned by its Shiite residents and turned into a battleground by the Sunni extremists.
Through the sheiks they'd met earlier, the soldiers offered food and assured people in adjacent Sunni neighborhoods that they were there to secure the city, not to attack. Those northern KBS neighborhoods, once dominated by the Islamist militants, quickly came under control without incident.
In October, the troops detained a top al Qaida in Iraq manufacturer of homemade bombs, which the U.S. military calls improvised explosive devices. After that, IEDs dropped 75 percent in their area, Clifford said.
One of the sheiks with influence in the northern part of the city, Sheik Walid Shalaa Ali al Mujamai, also came around. To show his support, he dragged a sniper who was thought to be responsible for killing U.S. soldiers to the soldiers' outpost in a headlock. The man confessed that night.
"He brought in the guy who killed two of my men. That was a big turning point for me," Clifford said.
There's no immediate proof, but Mujamai, known to the soldiers as Sheik Walid, probably worked with al Qaida in Iraq out of self-interest or self-preservation, Clifford said.
Now, Mujamai is working with the Americans and, like other local leaders, looking to control some of the U.S.-backed militias — and their payrolls — that are forming quickly in Khan Bani Sa'ad and the surrounding villages.
'I FEEL LIKE A POLITICIAN'
One of the U.S. officers who're playing key roles in the formation of these militias in the northern villages is Godson, the captain from Iowa.
Looking out the back of his Stryker as it rolled down the road, he could point to spots where large roadside bombs used to be buried. Piles of rubble set back several yards off the road used to be houses rigged with explosives, he said.
Godson's job is more diplomacy than warfare. He goes from village to village connecting with local sheiks and mukhtars, or mayors. His days can fill with long discussions and negotiations.
Every local leader wants to show his hospitality in hopes of allying with the U.S. military, and several rounds of tea can be served, as well as heavy meals of lamb, rice and bread. One night, Godson looked at a map and sighed: "I owe a lot of people some lunches."
Sometimes, meetings go smoothly, with compliments and pledges of brotherhood back and forth. Other times, Godson can field complaints that range from a lack of water in the fields to a recent visit to Iraq by Iran's president.
At one village he visited where U.S.-backed militias have started to form, he noticed that men in the militia weren't wearing their red mesh vests. Their children ran to retrieve the vests for their fathers when the soldiers appeared.
Some of the U.S. soldiers wondered whether the militiamen were doing their jobs or just collecting American money. Godson's platoon returned a few days later and uncovered a weapons cache that may have been planted by Sunni extremists or their sympathizers, raising more questions about what was going on.
At another stop, Godson told a local sheik to stand down the militias he'd set up at least seven times. Godson didn't trust the sheik or the village yet. "We live over there and I have seen too many bad things happen in this village," Godson said.
Back on his Stryker, he glanced back at the village. He said it was always difficult to know whether he was communicating effectively.
"I just hope what we're doing is helping," he said. "I feel like a politician sometimes going around and telling everyone they are doing a great job, trying not to commit me or my government to anything that will screw me in the end."
Lannen writes for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader.
ON THE WEB
A slide show about Troop B in Diyala province, narrated by Lannen.