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Page last updated at 17:32 GMT, Wednesday, 22 October 2008 18:32 UK

Face to face with the insurgency

By Paul Wood
Middle East correspondent, BBC News

Iraqi police on joint patrol, pic credit: Nick Woolley
Iraqi police conduct joint patrols with US forces near Tikrit

The body of a 20-year-old Iraqi girl turned up recently in a small Sunni town south of Tikrit. Her own family had killed her.

She had been having an affair with her cousin, but that was not the problem: cousins often marry in this part of the world. But they had decided to have sex and he had persuaded her to let him film this "just for us".

Of course, he could not resist showing the tape to his friends, to boast.

The pictures started to circulate in this small town and her family found out the couple had been sleeping together.

Honour demanded that they murder her - not him, naturally.

The US army officer telling me this story said his soldiers had wanted to find the boy involved and give him a good beating.

The officer, too, was furious, but also resigned to the situation. After more than a year here, he knew only too well that Salahaddin province was never going to be Kansas.

From hunted to hunters?

In the same way, the US government has come to accept it is never going to implant Jeffersonian democracy in Baghdad.

So goals have been adjusted, compromises made. The US forces know they have to be pragmatic if they are ever going to leave this place.

Take Sheikh Sabah al-Shamari. He was once an insurgent, he told me. But I met him as he laid on a lavish lunch for the Americans.

Huge metal dishes of lamb and rice were set down on the floor. We sat cross-legged to eat with our hands.

Grabbing a particularly fatty hunk of meat - the best bit - and pressing it into my palm, the sheikh told me how the Americans were paying him to provide militiamen loyal to the coalition.

Sheikh Sabah al-Shamari, pic credit: Nick Woolley
We like the coalition. They brought security here; if they don't stay we'll have the Iranians and al-Qaeda
Sheikh Sabah al-Shamari
Tribal Awakening leader

This is the so-called Tribal Awakening, known to some as the Sons of Iraq movement but also dubbed, rather absurdly, the Concerned Local Citizens - a name thought up by some PR genius in the US military.

Whatever the title, the Tribal Awakening has brought relative peace to the Sunni areas of Iraq. The sheikh told me - with the American officer next to him in full agreement - that 60% of his men were former insurgents.

Once they had tried to kill the Americans, now they were helping them, he said.

Flashing a charming smile at the US soldiers, the sheikh added: "We like the coalition. They brought security here; if they don't stay we'll have the Iranians and al-Qaeda. We still need them."

The American officer with me quietly explained that the sheikh had been accused of embezzling the money for Tribal Awakening militiamen and had been briefly jailed.

But the coalition needed all the friends it could get and the sheikh had risked his life to help, surviving more than one assassination attempt. So he was released.

All this meant that there had not been a bomb attack against this particular unit of the 101st Airborne for months. There was a time when they used to get blown up or shot at by snipers every couple of days.

Islamic Army remnants

The coalition believes it has broken the back of the insurgency in Sunni areas of Iraq. It says it has won over the local population, jailing or killing those insurgent leaders who cannot be persuaded to change sides.

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On the ground with US forces in Tikrit - report contains strong language

Some insurgents are left. In the local police station we meet a group introduced to us as what remained, in this particular small town, of the feared Islamic Army of Iraq.

They were kids. Five young men, all shackled together, were ushered into the police chief's office. One told me he was 15 years old.

He explained how they had planted a bomb to murder an informer. But it had gone off early, killing an innocent bystander.

Facing a long jail sentence, he said he wanted to co-operate with the police and the US forces.

His friend, aged 18, said he had joined the group because a senior insurgent leader had convinced him it was his duty as a Muslim to kill Americans. But he was sorry about that now.

The group's leader, a 19-year-old called Gazwan, proved a tougher nut to crack. He was facing the death sentence.

A good word from the US military could save him. But, sitting handcuffed on the floor, he still refused to tell the Americans what they wanted to know.

Reconciliation process

A US intelligence officer also in the room said the young man's cousin was a senior leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) who was now in Camp Bucca, the coalition's jail for insurgents.

His father had also been a leading member of the so-called resistance. When the local leader of the Islamic Army in Iraq was arrested, Gazwan had assumed leadership of the group.

Alleged insurgent leader, Gazwan, in custody, pic credit: Nick Woolley
US soldiers said Gazwan had been caught with bombs twice before

"Right about the time we hear about Jaish al-Islami [the Islamic Army] coming back together, we get this IED [roadside bomb]," said the intelligence officer about the only attack the US unit here had suffered in months.

Captain Mike Gacheru, the commander of this unit - part of the 101st Airborne Division - told me Gazwan had been caught with bombs twice before, but released by the US under the process of reconciliation designed to re-integrate former insurgents into society.

Each time, Gazwan had promised the Americans his fighting days were over and that he would give them any other explosives he might have.

The Americans asked him why he hadn't told them about the bomb meant for the informer.

"It was only a small bomb," said Gazwan.

"So do you have any more small bombs at your house? This might help you," said Captain Gacheru.

"If I have more bombs I will give them to you," he responded.

This was met with general disbelief.

"Was that bomb for me?" Gacheru pressed on. "You're in some deep water now, Gazwan. I keep throwing you a line, but you keep letting my line go."

Dime a dozen

Gazwan limped out (a sign, perhaps, of a beating by the Iraqi police).

Others in his group told the Americans he did indeed have a stash of weapons and bombs. But, even staring at the hangman's noose, the 19-year-old insurgent leader had refused to give it up.

Soldiers searching for weapons cache, pic credit: Nick Woolley
A night-time search for weapons came under attack

"He has attacked my soldiers on numerous occasions and it is only a matter of time before it catches up to you," said Captain Gacheru outside.

He added: "We went after the big fish, now all these guys [whom we had just seen] are just direct action guys, the guys who put the bombs, shoot the AKs, throw the grenades.

"They are a dime a dozen, if you try to go after them you'll spend the rest of the deployment doing that."

That night, the Americans continued their search for hidden weapons. They had received a tip that some were buried in a children's playground in the nearby town.

It was pitch black. Under green "tactical" flashlights, they started digging up the playground.

After 15 minutes, they had found nothing. The Iraqi police officers with them were starting to get nervous.

There was a gunshot, and then a flash and a loud bang: the patrol was under attack.

Sprayed with shrapnel

The explosion might have been a booby trap, or a mine. It might have been a hand grenade thrown from the shadows. Nobody could tell.

Paul Wood, pic credit: Nick Woolley
The Americans have no illusions that they can end the violence in Iraq. They just hope to reduce it enough to hand the whole problem to the Iraqis

As soldiers ran around looking for cover, there were yells of "where is it coming from?"

No one knew if this was the start of an ambush.

Amid the confusion, it quickly became clear that one soldier had been injured.

A sergeant was lying on the ground. His face and legs had been sprayed with shrapnel. He was yelling for the medic.

The patrol's leader got him - and everyone else - into the vehicles and headed back to base.

The evening had been a lesson in the kind of reduced expectations the coalition has for Iraq. This is what "victory" looks like and it is not pretty.

The Americans have no illusions that they can end the violence in Iraq. They just hope to reduce it enough to hand the whole problem to the Iraqis.

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