- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2008

HIMBUS, Iraq (AP) Fear is more than a four-letter concept in Iraq’s Diyala pro-vince. It’s real. It’s constant. It’s all-pervasive, and for years, while the area was under the thumb of al Qaeda, it was a matter of life and death.

It still is all of the above.

The number of active al Qaeda terrorists in the province north of Baghdad is thought to be less than a hundred following Operation Raider Harvest.

Yet the fear remains palpable.

“They would kill anyone, even a sheik, and no one could ask why,” said a man who identified himself as Raad in the town of Himbus.

“Everyone was afraid. People stayed at home because they could just stop you on the street and make you do things, take your money, beat you or kidnap you.

“Four men were kidnapped a week before [U.S. and Iraqi forces] came. No one has seen them again.”

The mukhtar, or chief, of al-Hib village gave a similar assessment to a U.S. soldier.

“Al Qaeda made us like chickens, afraid of everything,” the mukhtar, or headman, of al-Hib reported.

The mukhtar made the unusually frank admission in his home, away from prying eyes and eavesdropping, when a patrol from Iron Company, 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment paid a courtesy call.

Raad’s statement was made on a public street, but two of his friends kept passers-by from crowding around within hearing distance.

It was not misplaced caution.

U.S. troops in Diyala province reported an increase in tips about al Qaeda terrorists since beginning the operation Jan. 8.

“The population is less nervous … about giving us information on the remaining al Qaeda in the area,” The Washington Times quoted Lt. Col. Rod Coffey, the unit’s commander, as saying in an article last week.

But interviews with the two Iraqis, both witnessed by this reporter, reflect a darker side for those who continue to live in the province. Building trust will take time.

Himbus and al-Hib are located in what’s called Diyala’s breadbasket, a region rich in dates, pomegranates and oranges.

Until the kickoff of the U.S.-Iraqi operation last month, no central government official had visited the area of some 10,000 residents for two years.

Himbus was an al Qaeda sanctuary along a main infiltration route between Baghdad and the northern provinces.

There were safe houses and headquarters buildings — basically, homes confiscated from their owners at gunpoint — training camps, arms and munitions caches.

Under de facto al Qaeda rule, smoking cigarettes was forbidden, women were required to wear full hijab and music of any kind was banned, residents said.

Beards could no longer be kept short and neatly trimmed, as Iraqi men prefer. No one was allowed out of doors between 5 p.m. and dawn.

Those restrictions are gone, but fear of those who enforced it remains and is affecting U.S. and Iraqi security efforts.

“People tell me they are still afraid of the terrorists and also afraid of us,” said Sgt. Rudy Perreno of Iron Company. “I ask them, why us? When was the last time they heard of us cutting off heads?

“It’s damn frustrating. No one will point out the ones still here.”

An estimated 10 to 20 terrorists are thought to be in the Himbus area, as well as those who do their bidding, whether for ideology, for cash or under duress.

They continue to plant bombs known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, and threaten, through their very presence, retribution on those who cooperate with coalition forces.

U.S. soldiers last month found a house booby-trapped with explosives — a house they searched and cleared just days earlier.

Soldiers also found and destroyed four IED devices planted at spots in the road cleared a few days earlier.

Every day platoons from Iron Company leave a small house they’ve established as a base and check and recheck abandoned houses, roads and buildings for new bombs.

Every day they visit neighborhoods, stop in homes to take information and attempt to get intelligence on terrorists.

Out of public sight, Iraqis are courteous, hospitable and friendly. On the street, those same Iraqis look straight ahead, eyes down, past the U.S. patrols and only smile or utter “salaam” (“peace”) when soldiers say it to them first.

Fear of retribution even trumps gratitude.

An Iraqi woman’s response to a question in sign language as to the health of the young child she was carrying was an almost imperceptible nod and a smile, faster than a blink, before she returned to her eyes-down march past a column of Stryker armored vehicles.

Hours before, a medic in the convoy had helped treat the child who was thought near death because of dehydration and arranged additional treatment at a hospital.

“I know you’re afraid that there are still bad guys here,” Col. Coffey told a group of men standing near a canal in Himbus recently.

“We understand, but you’ll never be safe as long as there are killers on the street. Tells us who they are, and we’ll get them. Tell us in private; no one will know who said anything.”

When a U.S. soldier went to take a photograph of the group for identity checking, three men in it were seen to shrink back and stand behind those much taller. The second photo taken arranged those men in front, in unobstructed view.

They weren’t that clever,” a soldier said. “We’ll find out exactly who they are and where they live.”

U.S. forces also are trying to get those who have worked for al Qaeda to turn themselves in.

“If they come to me, shall I tell them to surrender to you?” the mukhtar of Himbus asked Capt. David Beaudoin, the executive officer of Iron Company said

“Yes, get the word out on the street. Tell them we understand good people were made to do things to protect their families.”

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