By David Mays
Special to American Forces Press Service
Oct. 12, 2007 - Violence in Iraq's Diyala River Valley has been slashed in half thanks to citizen volunteers, a coalition commander said today. "Currently in Diyala, we have 4,000 local citizens who have decided to reject al Qaeda and other extremist organizations as well as militia, and they're now helping in the protection of their own neighborhoods," Army Col. David Sutherland told online journalists and "bloggers" during a conference call from Forward Operating Base Warhorse near Baqouba, Iraq.
Sutherland commands the 3rd "Greywolf" Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, deployed from Fort Hood, Texas, and assigned to Multinational Division North. Since November of 2006, he and his soldiers have been working with Iraqi security forces to drive al Qaeda out of a vast area that stretches from Baghdad eastward to the Iranian border. Increasingly, that mission has depended on Iraqi citizen volunteers.
"The local citizens now understand that the future of Iraq can be better if they get involved in ridding this area of the al Qaeda influence and participate in the development of their own democracy, which they're also assisting in defining," Sutherland said.
"Concerned local citizens" are essentially neighborhood watch groups that patrol Iraqi communities and report suspicious activity to coalition and Iraqi security forces, the colonel explained.
"They are also providing actionable information on the location of weapons caches," Sutherland explained. "They even point out al Qaeda fighters, locations of house-borne IEDs, vehicle-borne IEDs, deep-buried IEDs, and this is all making a difference."
Members of these groups take an oath, sign a contract and are vetted to make sure they are not insurgents hoping to infiltrate the organization, the colonel said. If a member does not live up to the agreement, they are kicked out or even arrested, as were a concerned local citizen leader and 16 of his followers this week who were accused of raping a young Iraq girl, extorting money from fellow citizens and maintaining weapons caches.
"The people of the neighborhood and other CLCs from other neighborhoods are the ones that gave us the information (to arrest them)," Sutherland said. "We will enforce not only reconciliation agreements, but we will enforce the CLC agreements, as well."
Using concerned local citizens groups to build Iraqi confidence and restore security that was shattered by terror groups is crucial to reconciliation in Diyala, the colonel explained.
"Unlike al Anbar, which is predominantly Sunni, in Diyala we have 25 major tribes from all sects: Sunni, Shiia and Kurdish. And we also have over 100 sub-tribes within this province. All are competing for resources and for power," Sutherland said. "Reconciliation in Diyala attempts to eliminate all the rifts in the society that al Qaeda about 18 months ago attempted to exploit."
So far, 250 tribal leaders have signed reconciliation agreements, the colonel said. Only three tribes have yet to sign, and that is due only to their remote locations, Sutherland said.
"Basically the tribal leaders are realizing that if they don't participate, they'll be left behind as security and services improve," he said. "Reconciliation goes on between not only tribes but villages, within families, across religious sects, and even between the police and the army."
The bottom line, the colonel said, is that Iraqi citizens are realizing that the only way to stabilize their communities and reconcile their country is to stand together against extremists.
"For thousands of years they've lived together, and they're sick and tired of the violence," he said.
(David Mays works for the New Media branch of American Forces Information Service.)