By Kristen Noel
Special to American Forces Press Service
Jan. 28, 2008 - Security improvements have spurred reconciliation in the Madain Qada region along the Diyala and Tigris rivers in Iraq, an area that had been plagued by brutal sectarian violence, a U.S. commander there said. "We have made amazing progress along all lines of operation, but it is security that opened all the doors to allow us to get (reconciliation) going," Army Col. Wayne Grigsby, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, said during a teleconference with online journalists and "bloggers" Jan. 25.
Grigsby said his unit has conducted 166 named operations in Madain Qada province -- an area about the size of Rhode Island with a population of 1.2 million -- since April.
"These operations to date have resulted in about 149 extremists killed, 500 extremists captured, and 36 of those (captured) were high-value individuals," he said. The unit also cleared over 3,300 buildings, found 78 weapons caches and 151 improvised explosive devices through operations in Madain Qada, he said.
As a result, extremist violence against civilians in the region has decreased significantly. The murder rate has dropped from an average of 53 murders per month in 2006 to an average of nine a month over the past few months, Grigsby estimated. And there were only two kidnappings in December, compared to a peak of 22 in May, he said.
"When we arrived here, many people had fled the area," he said. "Now, we see more and more families coming back to live here."
With violence down, concerned local citizens groups are standing up to help coalition and Iraqi police forces maintain security by manning checkpoints to prevent extremists from returning, Grigsby said. "In our area, the concerned local citizens took root in Arafiyah in August," he said.
The concerned local citizen groups are setting the grounds for reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite sects in Madain Qada. "We have ... about 5,800 concerned local citizens -- 50-50 split on Shiia and Sunni -- and some of these concerned local citizens groups are both Shiia and Sunni," Grigsby explained. "It's forcing the Sunnis and the Shiia to work together."
In addition to the sects working together within the concerned local citizen groups, he said, there is still cooperation with the mostly Shiite Iraqi police force in Madain Qada in areas where these groups are mostly Sunni.
For example, Grigsby recalled, a sheikh's son was killed deterring an al Qaeda suicide bomber's attempted attack on a mostly Sunni concerned local citizens group meeting in August. "Within hours, they were working with the predominately Shiia national police, who arrested the (al Qaeda in Iraq) cell that was responsible."
He said the reconciliation between the two sects is working because of an attitude shift among people in Madain Qada.
"So what we're seeing right now is, it doesn't make a difference what team you're on. If you are threatening any people in the Madain Qada, we don't like you," he said. "The people are standing up and saying, 'We don't want the violence any more.'"
The citizens' front against violence also is deterring extremism organically, Grigsby said, because extremists count on being able to hide behind the people.
"The concerned local citizens now stood up and said, 'Stop, you can't hide behind me any more,'" he said. "So (the extremists) have to leave the area and go find another place where they don't have all the security."
(Kristen Noel works for the New Media branch of American Forces Information Service.)