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BRIEFING: U.S. troops try to heal Iraqi blood feuds

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2008

LITTLE BARAWANA, IRAQ

The U.S. strategy under Gen. David H. Petraeus has bred a new type of American soldier in Iraq — a kinetic warrior who is also a diplomat, com- munity-relations worker, dispute mediator, social-service adviser and reconstruction facilitator.

In the Diyala River Valley village of Little Barawana, one of those soldiers recently surveyed his battlefield and then began to speak.

The days of "insurgents operating in Barawana are past," Lt. Col. Rod Coffey said to a gathering of Sunni and Shi'ite sheiks and leaders. "[The terrorists] are now gone, but the people of both Barawanas suffered because of them.

"I ask you to help each other, not blame each other for the past.

"Together, we can make sure the terrorists are gone and stay away," he said.

Col. Coffey is commander of the U.S. Army's 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, which launched an offensive in early January against al Qaeda in the "breadbasket" area of the Diyala River Valley, about 70 miles northeast of Baghdad.

Two years ago, the region became a sanctuary for al Qaeda and its sometimes Sunni ally, Jaish Ansar al-Sunna.

Col. Coffey's audience was 20 Shi'ite sheiks, mullahs and other officials from the village of Little Barawana and 20 of their Sunni counterparts from the neighboring village of Big Barawana, who sat on opposite sides of a concrete courtyard in a local school.

The two groups had convened to sign a peace treaty at the urging of Col. Coffey and officials in the provincial capital of Baqouba.

For two years, the neighboring villages of about 1,000 residents each had been at each other's throats. All roads and footpaths between the villages were blockaded. Farmers with land exposed to the other side abandoned their properties.

Shooting across the 300 yards of open — but mined and booby-trapped ground separating the villages — was routine.

The feud started in 2006 when al Qaeda, whose members are nominally Sunni, blew up the Shi'ite Shrine of the Golden Mosque in the distant city of Samarra, sparking sectarian violence nationwide.

The Sunnis of Big Barawana, fearing attacks by Shi'ites, apparently considered al Qaeda fighters who were then moving into the area as protection from Shi'ite revenge.

The protectors soon became tyrants, a situation ended by the U.S.-Iraqi offensive named Operation Raider Harvest.

Under terms of the agreement Col. Coffey and Iraqi leaders presented in Little Barawana, the two sides pledged to re-establish good relations; bar from their villages all terrorists, insurgents and anyone else who would harm the joint interests of the villages; and to report to the police or other security forces any arms or explosive caches.

They further agreed to exercise self-restraint in their dealings with each other — especially in any shooting incidents. All roads and pathways also would be reopened, and efforts would be made to facilitate the return of villagers who fled their homes.

The leaders, with help from the Baqouba Tribal Council, would meet regularly to resolve problems, and U.S. and Iraqi authorities would monitor progress and act as mediators.

Col. Coffey is hopeful for the Barawanas but also is aware of special challenges.

Little Barawana has about 21 Iraqi police officers, plus many "extras" or auxiliary police who are suspected of being Shi'ite militia members.

After signing the agreement, the Sunni and Shi'ite representatives began crossing the 25-foot physical divide at the school, kissing each other on the cheek and shaking hands.

Gen. Petraeus, in a report to Congress last fall, explained that the fundamental source of the conflict in Iraq is competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources.

"This competition will take place, and its resolution is key to producing long-term stability in the new Iraq. The question is whether the competition takes place more or less violently," Gen. Petraeus told lawmakers.

For Col. Coffey, the animated conversations in the Little Barawana school courtyard between Sunnis and Shi'ites who had grown up as friends belied an undercurrent of blood feuds that had since developed.

Grim-faced, he pulled aside the senior council representative, a Shi'ite, and the two spoke in hushed tones.

"I'm going to speak to the [Iraqi police] commander, but I want you to tell them also: 'I'm not fooling around. I will arrest them if I think they're trying to cause sectarian violence. That sort of thing will end as long as I'm commander here.' Some [of the Shi'ite Iraqi police] are hotheads. You leaders have to get control of them, or this agreement will unravel."

What sparked Col. Coffey's ire was the way the Shi'ite police at the meeting interacted with the Sunni representatives — grudgingly, with disdain if not outright hate in their eyes.

Earlier during the gathering, a young Shi'ite, a friend of an Iraqi policeman who had somehow gained entry to the proceedings, was ejected after voicing hostile remarks toward the Sunni leaders.

"You don't understand the Iraqi system," an Iraqi who spoke English told a U.S. soldier, who had thrown the intruder out. "If someone kills my brother — say, a Ba'athist — I will never forget that. And every time I see a Ba'athist, I'll think he's the one who did it."

Col. Coffey and soldiers up and down the chain of command in Iraq understood. When the Sunnis returned to Big Barawana after the meeting, they did so riding in U.S. Stryker armored vehicles.