Nearly 6,000 Sunni Arab residents joined a security pact with American forces Wednesday in what U.S. officers described as a critical step in plugging the remaining escape routes for extremists flushed from former strongholds.
The new alliance — called the single largest volunteer mobilization since the war began — covers the “last gateway” for groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq seeking new havens in northern Iraq, U.S. military officials said.
U.S. commanders have tried to build a ring around insurgents who fled military offensives launched earlier this year in the western Anbar province and later into Baghdad and surrounding areas. In many places, the U.S.-led battles were given key help from tribal militias — mainly Sunnis — that had turned against al-Qaida and other groups.
Extremists have sought new footholds in northern areas once loyal to Saddam Hussein’s Baath party as the U.S.-led gains have mounted across central regions. But their ability to strike near the capital remains.
A woman wearing an explosive-rigged belt blew herself up near an American patrol near Baqouba, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, the military announced Wednesday. The blast on Tuesday — a rare attack by a female suicide bomber — wounded seven U.S. troops and five Iraqis, the statement said.
Tribesmen will man 200 security checkpoints
The ceremony to pledge the 6,000 new fighters was presided over by a dozen sheiks — each draped in black robes trimmed with gold braiding — who signed the contract on behalf of tribesmen at a small U.S. outpost in north-central Iraq.
For about $275 a month — nearly the salary for the typical Iraqi policeman — the tribesmen will man about 200 security checkpoints beginning Dec. 7, supplementing hundreds of Iraqi forces already in the area.
About 77,000 Iraqis nationwide, mostly Sunnis, have broken with the insurgents and joined U.S.-backed self-defense groups.
Those groups have played a major role in the lull in violence: 648 Iraqi civilians have been killed or found dead in November to date, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press. This compares with 2,155 in May as the so-called “surge” of nearly 30,000 additional American troops gained momentum.
Americans deaths drop
U.S. troop deaths in Iraq also have dropped sharply. So far this month, the military has reported 35 deaths — including an American soldier killed Wednesday in western Baghdad — compared with 38 in October. In June, 101 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq.
Village mayors and others who signed Wednesday’s agreement say about 200 militants have sought refuge in the area, about 30 miles southwest of Kirkuk on the edge of northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Hawija is a predominantly Sunni Arab cluster of villages which has long been an insurgent flashpoint.
The recently arrived militants have waged a campaign of killing and intimidation to try to establish a new base, said Sheikh Khalaf Ali Issa, mayor of Zaab village.
“They killed 476 of my citizens, and I will not let them continue their killing,” Issa said.
Creating an 'obstacle' to militants
With the help of the new Sunni allies, “the Hawija area will be an obstacle to militants, rather than a pathway for them,” said Maj. Sean Wilson, with the Army’s 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. “They’re another set of eyes that we needed in this critical area.”
By defeating militants in Hawija, U.S. and Iraqi leaders hope to keep them away from Kirkuk, an ethnically diverse city that is also the hub of Iraq’s northern oil fields.
“They want to go north into Kirkuk and wreak havoc there, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid,” Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, the top U.S. commander in northern Iraq, told The Associated Press this week.
Kurds often consider Kirkuk part of their ancestral homeland and often refer to the city as the “Kurdish Jerusalem.” Saddam, however, relocated tens of thousands of pro-regime Arabs to the city in the 1980s and 1990s under his “Arabization” policy.
The Iraqi government has begun resettling some of those Arabs to their home regions, making room for thousands of Kurds who have gradually returned to Kirkuk since Saddam’s ouster.
Tension has been rising over the city’s status — whether it will join the semi-autonomous Kurdish region or continue being governed by Baghdad.
“Hawija is the gateway through which all our communities — Kurdish, Turkomen and Arab alike — can become unsafe,” said Abu Saif al-Jabouri, mayor of al-Multaqa village north of Kirkuk. “Do I love my neighbor in Hawija? That question no longer matters. I must work to help him, because his safety helps me.”
Refugees flood home from Syria
In Baghdad, a bus convoy arrived carrying hundreds of refugees home from Syria. The buses, funded by the Iraqi government, left Damascus on Tuesday as part of a plan to speed the return of the estimated 2.2 million Iraqis who have fled to neighboring Syria and Jordan.
Also Wednesday, an Iraqi journalist Dhia al-Kawaz who said 11 members of his family — two sisters, their husbands and their seven children — were killed in their Baghdad home challenged the government’s denial of the deaths.
The Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, insisted that the deaths — reportedly Sunday in a northern neighborhood of Baghdad known to be a Shiite militia stronghold — never took place.
Al-Kawaz, who has lived outside Iraq for 20 years, told Al-Jazeera television: “I ask the spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh to let all of my family appear on TV.”
The media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders earlier this week condemned the attack and said Iraqi police at a nearby checkpoint failed to intervene. Following al-Dabbagh’s statement, the organization said it was “astounded and angry to discover” that the claim allegedly was false.