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In early February, with Iraqi flags flying, 500 Sons of Iraq volunteers marched into the city from the U.S. base, went into battle and later set up checkpoints they still man today.

U.S. officers credit the Sons of Iraq with playing a key role in defeating the enemy.

Attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces by al Qaeda numbered about 80 in January. Last month, there were no more than five.

“It’s not just the security” the Sons of Iraq help provide, Col. McGee said. “It’s the inroads and insight into the population you can only get from people who live here and know all the layers of the story.”

Jaish Islami, which means Islamic Army in Arabic, was started in 2003 by former soldiers of Saddam Hussein’s army and by former officials of his Ba’ath Party.

Although they shared with al Qaeda the goal of driving out the Americans, they turned their guns on the militant group in 2006 in Salahaddin province because of the organization’s foreign leadership and fighters and disregard for Iraqi casualties.

In Samarra, they succeeded in pushing out al Qaeda, but were later defeated. The Jaish Islami members either fled the city or disbanded.

Jaish Islami leaders and tribal sheiks say they are now following a political path to influence.

The insurgency, they said, got them nowhere and they have seen U.S. forces work to rebuild their homeland.

“We thank the coalition forces for all their help,” said Sheik Khalid Flayeh al-Bazzi. “If not for the Americans, we couldn’t see what we have now.”

In the Khadasiyah section of Samarra, where al Qaeda in Iraq had headquarters, stores are open again, with merchants hawking everything from snacks to wedding dresses.

Elsewhere in Samarra, roads are being repaired and infrastructure rebuilt. The Iraqi government supplies the funding, but U.S. troops hire local contractors and ensure funds are spent properly and projects are completed.

A problem area, however, is around the al-Askari mosque. Without a heavy influx of pilgrims, which won’t happen until the rebuilding is completed, stores nearby are struggling.

“It will take more than two years” to rebuild,” said Samarra Mayor Mahmoud Khalif Ahmed al-Bazzi.”You know it’s very important to us. The tourist people would come to visit it, stay at hotels, go to the shops, use the taxis. Before, especially during holy days, 100,000 people came. Now it’s only a few thousand.”

The first Shi’ite pilgrims returned to the city this summer and were greeted by an official welcoming committee. They couldn’t worship at the mosque itself, but were able to view reconstruction efforts and pray at another mosque in the al-Askari complex.

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