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Sunday, November 12, 2006

This is hardly surprising

The commander of Iraqi forces
in Diyala

Sectarian Rifts Foretell Pitfalls of Iraqi Troops’ Taking Control

BAQUBA, Iraq — It did not take long for Col. Brian D. Jones to begin to have doubts about the new Iraqi commander.

The commander, Brig. Gen. Shakir Hulail Hussein al-Kaabi, was chosen this summer by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad to lead the Iraqi Army’s Fifth Division in Diyala Province. Within weeks, General Shakir went to Colonel Jones with a roster of people he wanted to arrest.

On the list were the names of nearly every Sunni Arab sheik and political leader whom American officers had identified as crucial allies in their quest to persuade Sunnis to embrace the political process and turn against the powerful Sunni insurgent groups here.

“Where’s the evidence?” Colonel Jones demanded of General Shakir. “Where’s the proof? What makes us suspect these guys? None of that stuff exists.”

To that, Colonel Jones recalled, the Iraqi commander replied simply, “I got this from Baghdad.”

The incident was one of many that alarmed Colonel Jones, who just completed a yearlong tour as commander of American forces in Diyala. In the end, he said, he concluded that the Iraqi general’s real ambition was to destroy the Sunni political movement here — possibly on orders from Baghdad.

“I believe this is a larger plan to make Diyala a Shia province, rather than a Sunni province,” he said.

Diyala is known as “little Iraq,” because of its volatile mix of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. With its lush groves of date palms and abundant oil reserves, it is emerging as a crucial strategic territory in the sectarian struggle now gripping the country.

Long a stronghold of the insurgency — Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, was killed in a house only miles from here — Diyala is now teeming with Shiite militiamen who have rushed in from Baghdad in recent months to protect the Shiite population from attacks. Once considered by American officials to be relatively pacified, it has become a cauldron of violence carried out by insurgents and militias, intensified by sectarian-influenced security forces.

As pressures for a phased United States withdrawal build, the experiences of American commanders over the past year in Diyala provide a window on the possible consequences of ceding authority to the Iraqi Army.

And with the civilian homicide rate in Diyala now running at about 10 killings a day, according to United States officials, compared with 4 a day in April, the commanders’ experiences form a cautionary tale.

In July, the United States turned over “lead responsibility” for security in Diyala to the Iraqi Fifth Army Division. But within months, facing heavy violence and evidence of sectarian activities by the Iraqi Army, American commanders shelved plans to turn over full operational control of the Fifth Division to the Iraqi government on Oct. 1. “Recent operations conducted by the Fifth Iraqi Army seem to be focused strictly on the Sunnis,” said Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, division commander for northern Iraq.

American commanders are now hoping for a spring transfer of control, General Mixon said, adding that they are conducting a wide-ranging investigation into allegations of death squad involvement and other activities by the Fifth Division under General Shakir. The Iraqi general denies treating Sunnis unfairly and says he has no knowledge of death squads in Diyala. “We don’t favor one side,” he said.

Four Sunni police commanders and two key lieutenants have been killed in the past eight weeks, Colonel Jones said. A Sunni deputy police chief, he said, refuses to come to work because he believes “they’re going to kill him.”

Reports of detainee abuse in Iraqi Army facilities soared after General Shakir took over, Colonel Jones added, saying evidence shows some detainees were beaten and subjected to electrical shocks.

What is particularly disappointing for American officers is that there were two highly capable and even-handed brigade commanders serving directly under General Shakir — Brig. Gen. Rahman Challab al-Janabi in Muqdadiya and Brig. Gen. Saman Talabani in Baquba.

General Rahman was fired by General Shakir in late October, and General Talabani, who said he was frustrated with serving under General Shakir, has told United States officers that he expects that he will have to give up his command. During a recent operation he grabbed a radio and, in a reference to the militia led by Mr. Sadr, screamed at General Shakir, saying that he was not an Iraqi commander but a “Mahdi Army commander.”

General Talabani, a Kurd, said he believed that General Shakir took orders from Mr. Sadr. “He’s working for Moktada,” he said. “He’s working just for the Shia people.”

He also said aides to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite who to a great extent owes his position to backing from Mr. Sadr, had made it clear that they supported General Shakir.

In an interview, General Shakir — recently promoted by Baghdad to major general despite the American inquiry into his activities — said he was committed to fighting terrorists anywhere in Iraq, regardless of their sect.

He insisted that he pursued Shiite outlaws as aggressively as he pursued Sunnis. If he is given the names of Shiite militiamen, he said, he will order troops to seize them.

General Mixon said senior American commanders had told Iraqi officials of their grave concerns about General Shakir. Nevertheless, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry insisted that it had “received no complaints against him, nor have we had any bad indications.”

Officials are “pleased” with General Shakir, and the descriptions by United States commanders in Diyala are incorrect, said the ministry spokesman, Mohammed al-Askari.

When Maliki says they should "turn the Iraqi Army loose" here's your preview.

posted by Steve @ 8:11:00 AM

8:11:00 AM

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