- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2007

BAGHDAD — U.S. and Iraqi military officials said yesterday that blatant attacks by al Qaeda in Iraq were emerging as a major threat in Diyala province, which has become a new target of insurgent, terrorist and militia violence as security starts to improve in Baghdad.

“Al Qaeda represents the most threat against units [in Diyala],” said Maj. Gen. Shakir Halail Husain, commander of the 5th Iraqi Division working in the province.

The troops in Diyala, however, are battling a combination of al Qaeda-linked Sunni extremists and rogue Shi’ite militias, supported and supplied by local inhabitants and neighboring Iran, the military officials said.

“The more brazen operations are by al Qaeda in Iraq,” said Col. David W. Sutherland of the U.S. military, who together with Gen. Husain was speaking to journalists via video from the Diyala provincial capital, Baqouba.

Col. Sutherland added that “rogue militias” — a term normally used for extreme elements of the illegal but organized Shi’ite militias — also were a concern.

He said security forces were trying to work with tribal leaders and the local government to wean the residents from supporting the enemy.

“The increased violence cannot happen without the support of the people,” said Col. Sutherland, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.

Gen. Husain said terrorists in the area were getting help “from Iran to Baqouba.”

“We have identified these areas and we are working to cut off the supply,” he said.

Gen. Husain, however, stopped short of directly accusing Iran of helping al Qaeda in Iraq. “Iran is not helping al Qaeda, but they are smuggling IEDs and other weapons like C-4 and anti-tank mines [into the area],” he said.

IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, are the roadside bombs frequently used by insurgents to kill coalition forces. C-4 is a type of plastic explosive.

Gen. Husain said that security forces also had captured two Egyptians and two Syrians operating in Baqouba, and that other suspects had spoken of Afghans in the area.

Journalists traveling with the troops in Diyala have reported large and complex attacks on U.S. Stryker forces, who are working with Iraqi troops to clear out the area.

Iraqis believe that as U.S. and Iraqi forces bring Baghdad under control, terrorist and militia forces are spilling over into other provinces.

“There is an increase in the number of fighters we are engaging and fighting against,” Col. Sutherland said about the battles in Diyala.

But as anti-coalition attacks increase, sectarian Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence is dropping, he said. There were 124 killings of local nationals in July 2006, but the number came down to just 16 in February, he said.

Col. Sutherland did not provide any numbers for the interim months.

Iraqis fear that U.S. and Iraqi military successes will provide them with only a temporary respite from violent extremists who will either move from city to city or just wait out the Americans in neighboring countries.

“The movement of terrorists and insurgents throughout the country is an effect that might happen.”

The U.S. military leader said security forces were working with tribal leaders in the province to help force a wedge between extremists and those willing to join the political process.

But success, he said, would depend on the Iraqi government complementing the military operations by providing residents with fuel and food.

“What we can’t allow is the government to lose will, because if the government loses will, the people lose hope,” Col. Sutherland said.

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