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IRAQ - Echoes Of Bosnia.

The New York Times on April 17 quoted Lt Col. Patrick Donahoe as saying from his Humvee that he could almost see Bosnia through Jurf as-Sakhr. It is not there yet, he said, but the communal hatred he had witnessed in his area of Iraq, the blindingly ignorant things people say, the pulling apart of Shi'ite and Sunni towns which were once tightly intertwined, were reminiscent of what he saw years ago as a young US army captain on a peacekeeping mission in the former Yugoslavia. He said: "You talk to people here, and it's literally the same conversations I heard in Bosnia. I had a police colonel tell me the other day that all the people in Jurf as-Sakhr" - a mainly Sunni town - "are evil, including the children".

Jurf as-Sakhr, also known as Jurf, is 65 km south of Baghdad. It is a community of crumbly dirt farms and dilapidated weapons factories and boys selling chickens along the road. It sits on a sectarian fault line which in the past few months has cracked open, and Donahoe is back to playing peacekeeper. The work is emblematic of a new role for the US soldier in Iraq, as the threat has shifted so has the mission.

Sectarian violence is killing more people and destabilising Iraq more than the Sunni insurgency ever did. US commanders in mixed Sunni-Shi'ite areas like Jurf are throwing their armour, troops and money directly into the divide, trying to keep Iraq from violently partitioning the way Bosnia did. What complicates their mission is that the insurgency keeps mutating, finding new recruits and even new weapons; one soldier in Jurf was recently shot in the arm by an arrow.

Commanders have to wage war and push peace. Donahoe and others said the outcome of the entire US enterprise might hinge on how well they pulled off this balancing act. Donahoe said: "This is the critical year. If we don't turn things around, if we don't get the Shi'ites and Sunnis to stop killing each other, I'm not sure there's much else we can do".

Donahoe is using tactics like micro-loans to re-establish trade between Shi'ite and Sunni merchants; a programme to restore Sunni participation; and joint police patrols - not joint American-Iraqi, but joint Shi'ite-Sunni patrols. He was trained as a tank commander, but he spends much of his time chatting with shaikhs, trying to ease suspicions. His soldiers have a harder adjustment to make. Many are on their second tours in Iraq, and they have returned to a different war. When they were in Iraq in 2004, it was all about crushing the Sunni-led insurgency. Now it is about checking Shi'ite power.

Many US soldiers say peacekeeping, no matter what the stakes, is not war-fighting. It does not deliver the same sense of adventure or the same sort of bonds. The NYT quoted Command Sergeant Major Elijah King Jr., who is on his second tour, as saying: "I'll never forget those guys I crossed the border with. It's not like that anymore".

The troops in Jurf are part of the 1st Battalion, 67th Armour, based at Fort Hood, Texas. The battalion, part of the 4th Infantry Division, has about 1,000 soldiers and first came to Iraq in 2003 as part of the invasion force before rolling north of Baghdad for counter-insurgency patrols which continued through early 2004. The battalion returned to Iraq in December 2005 and is now thinly spread over 7,000 sq km between Iskandariya to the north and Karbala to the south. Because of all the insurgent activity, the military includes this area in what it refers to as the Triangle of Death. One of the hottest spots is Jurf, once home to date plantations, a Scud missile testing site and the Medina Division of Saddam's Republican Guard.

After the invasion, Jurf with its concentration of former officers, Ba'thists, weapons experts and leaders of the powerful Janabi tribe became a terrorist sanctuary. Just south of Jurf is Hamiya, a mostly Shi'ite farming town which never enjoyed Jurf's privilege. While Jurf farmers drove tractors, Hamiya farmers swung hoes, and in an atmosphere of rising sectarian tensions, these deep-seated class rivalries eventually exploded.

South of Hamiya are the almost purely Shi'ite towns of Musayyib and Sedda. The troops have been enmeshed in strange local dynamics. Recently a school-girl came to them with an armload of books which included a chemical weapons training manual. She led the soldiers to her father, a former Iraqi army colonel suspected of being an insurgent. After the soldiers detained him, they gave the girl a chocolate bar. One night in March, US troops helped police officers from Hamiya, the working-class Shi'ite town, aggressively round up 10 men, all Sunnis, from Jurf. Donahoe said: "I left thinking, 'Wait a sec, were we just part of some sort of sectarian revenge?'".

As things quieted down with the Sunnis, more problems emerged with the Shi'ites. Shi'ite-led police forces began detaining Sunnis and refusing to release them even after US commanders concluded they were innocent. The NYT quoted Yassir Na'meh Naoufal, a Sunni elder in Jurf, as saying Sunnis could no longer visit Musayyib, a Shi'ite town, adding: "If we do, we might disappear".

Jaysh al-Mahdi has been pushing into Musayyib, introducing a harsh brand of Islamic law. The NYT quoted Staff Sergeant Joseph Schicker, a psychological operations soldier, as saying Jaysh al-Mahdi militiamen had thrown battery acid on a woman whose ankles were showing and dragged a man accused of being gay through the streets.

The NYT quoted Donahoe as drawing on the Balkans for an easy metaphor, saying: "...[Muqtada] is like Milosevic. He'll do anything to stay in power". Donahoe, 38, calls Bosnia his "formative military experience", and The NYT noted: "it seems that the nine months he spent there in 1996 has been as valuable for him in Iraq as the 15 years he trained as a tank commander". At a recent meeting which he organised between Shi'ite and Sunni imams, Donahoe shared one of his Bosnian lessons, telling them: "Those people were intermarried just like you. They lived together just like you. But certain leaders trying to grab power ripped that country apart". The imams nodded, the Shi'ites on one side of the room, the Sunnis on the other. Donahoe said he wanted to "reintegrate" local politics.

The Musayyib district council, which oversees all the towns in an area with a total population of around 200,000, was a mix of Shi'ites and Sunnis before the war. Now it is run by 17 Shi'ites, the majority of whom support Sadr, with two non-voting Sunni members. To make matters worse, elders in Hamiya, which is technically part of the Jurf subdistrict but is mostly Shi'ite, now want to secede from Jurf, even though Hamiya has been part of Jurf for decades.

Donahoe said what he needed more than anything was a real expert on governing, asking: "What do I know about running a district council?". Tip-toeing through these issues is far more delicate than hunting insurgents, and Donahoe seems to sense the difficulties of keeping his rank and file engaged. He tells all of his soldiers that they are now diplomats, and he uses them to interview merchants, for example, and protect the construction site of a new police station in Jurf.

Insurgents blew up the last one, and Donahoe is waiting to rebuild it before taking on the delicate task of intermingling police forces. He said: "The only way this is going to work is if the patrols are 50-50 [Shi'ite-Sunni]". Shi'ite police officials have agreed, in theory, but have hired few Sunnis so far.

Donahoe cited signs of progress. Bomb attacks are down. More shops are open. Fewer bodies are found bobbing in a nearby swamp. But it is not clear how receptive Shi'ites and Sunnis are to reconciliation efforts. Often, the only common ground is anti-American anger, or at least disappointment. Salah al-Shammari, an Iraqi police official and a Shi'ite, told US soldiers during a recent meeting: "I just wish you could put this country back to the way you found it". Donahoe said sometimes he was unsure whether that can be done, wondering: "How will it end?. I don't know. I think it will come down to an attrition of spirit. Either they'll get tired of fighting and quit. Or we will".

One of Iraq's newly chosen vice presidents, Adel Abdel-Mahdi of the Shi'ite SCIRI, has offered a new count of Iraqis who have been displaced because of sectarian violence. Speaking to reporters in the southern city of Najaf, Abdel-Mahdi said about 100,000 families, or about half a million people, had been forced to flee their homes. The number is far higher than that of Iraq's Ministry for Migration, which says about 11,000 families have fled. Abdel-Mahdi said more than 90% of the refugees were Shi'ites.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Redrawing the Islamic Map
Date:May 1, 2006
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