By Melinda L. Larson
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 26, 2007 - Tribal leaders in Iraq's Diyala province are banding together to secure peace and protect their people, the commander of coalition forces in the province told reporters yesterday. "They (tribal leaders) signed a peace agreement and swore to protect the land and their people from al Qaeda and to bridge the gap between tribes and to have a provincial-wide reconciliation movement," Army Col. David W. Sutherland said as he sat alongside the Iraqi security forces commander in Diyala, Maj. Gen. Abdul Kareem, during a joint press briefing in Baqubah, Iraq.
Referring to Kareem as his "friend" and "partner," Sutherland highlighted the success of the recent Iraqi and coalition forces Operation Lightning Hammer, which concluded Aug. 22.
In addition to disrupting al Qaeda and other militant rogue elements in the Diyala river valley, Lightning Hammer will be remembered for bringing together more than 80 tribal leaders from the area, many of whom had not spoken to one another for years, Sutherland said.
"Some of the sheikhs had been feuding for years," he said. "Their goal (now is) to work together for a better future for all Iraqis, regardless of tribe or sect. An attack (by al Qaeda) against one tribe is seen as an attack against all."
More than 80 tribal leaders met Aug. 19 at the provincial governor's compound to discuss their grievances and swore on the Koran to unite in their fight against terrorists and become one tribe of Diyala. Sutherland said tribal leaders hold the social power in Iraq, and that's why it is important for tribes to become partners.
"Tribal leaders are key to controlling the men of this province. They stand against al Qaeda and that makes our ability to bring them to justice much more decisive," Sutherland added.
Additionally, al Qaeda and rogue elements are being purged from the Diyala river valley not only by Iraqi and coalition forces, but by volunteers who are coming forward to assist Iraqi security forces.
"Concerned local nationals – patriots - have come forward and joined the security process," Sutherland said. "They are working with my soldiers and they are working with Iraqi security forces to assist us with information. They're being the eyes and ears forward - basically, advance scouts."
Sutherland said he believes that some of the Iraqi people who are volunteering to identify and purge al Qaeda and other elements from Diyala are doing so because they see improvements in their daily lives. Basic services such as food, water and electricity that in previous months had been quashed by al Qaeda are available once again.
"Iraqi security forces are now establishing a permanent presence to prevent the enemy from returning to those villages. The Iraqi security forces, partnered with our coalition forces, are here to protect them (Iraqi people) and provide safe haven," Sutherland said.
Sutherland also pointed out that as al Qaeda runs from Diyala province because of the tribal reconciliation initiatives, there's a plan in place.
"Multinational Division North, along with the Iraqi forces in Diyala, have a comprehensive plan to continue to attack al Qaeda as they migrate to other provinces," Sutherland said.
Noting that al Qaeda is well organized and funded, Sutherland said the fight will continue.
"The bottom line is, we will continue to attack al Qaeda and we will continue to attack anybody that disrupts the safety and security and services of the people in this province, no matter how organized they are."