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Analysis: Al Qaim is island of stability

By PAMELA HESS, UPI Pentagon Correspondent

HUSAYBA, Iraq, March 7 (UPI) -- Al-Qaim is an oasis of stability in the chaos of Iraq. But it was not always this way.

This region on the western border of Iraq -- literally a stone's throw to Syria -- used to be what the U.S. Marines call "the Wild West." It was violent, out of control, and for awhile firmly in the grips in al-Qaida in Iraq and other Islamist insurgent groups.

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Now, however, the markets are full; people are walking, shopping and building new homes, at least in Husayba, the major city in the area, and the surrounding villages south of the Euphrates River.

For the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, it is proof the tenets in the U.S. military's counterinsurgency manual published last year actually works.

That manual discusses how to win the low-intensity, long, small wars expected to characterize most conflicts the United States will engage in in the foreseeable future. At its heart, it counsels soldiers to win the loyalty and cooperation of the local people. It emphasizes restraint when dealing with civilians, precision when fighting insurgents, and jumpstarting the economy and political life, and helping provide basic services like water and power.

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All of those efforts has been underway for years in al-Qaim, but it was not what made the difference. What changed was that the "terrorists" -- the term al-Qaim Mayor Farhan Tehad Farhan uses to describe the alliance of local fighters and foreign jihadists -- turned their guns and knives on the local people.

Farhan admits that when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the residents of al-Qaim happily cooperated with the insurgents.

Camp Gannon, a small U.S. base in Husayba, sits at the end of Market Street.

"It was a gunfight all the way through. Sometimes they had to aerial resupply Camp Gannon because you just couldn't get a vehicle through," said Lt. Col. Scott Shuster, commander of the 3rd battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. "Gannon was Fort Apache."

"At first the Iraqi people were dealing with coalition forces as occupiers," said Farhan in his office in downtown Husayba. "The terrorist came to al-Qaim to fight the coalition forces, or the occupiers. After a while they exposed themselves by fighting the people of Iraq. They began killing Iraqi army and Iraqi people. They lost the support of the people. After that the people began to fight the al-Qaida members.

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"We as people now deal with coalition forces and the Iraqi army a lot, because now we know what the terrorists are like. If they come here they will kill the innocent people. Now if you talk to any coalition forces they can tell you how much we cooperate with them," Farhan said.

If the experience of al-Qaim could be bottled and spread to the rest of Iraq, the key ingredient is the brutality of the adversary.

Had al-Qaida in Iraq, the organization presumed to be behind most of the terrorist activity in the town, not overplayed its hand, al-Qaim might still be the same killing ground for U.S. forces it was between 2003 and 2006.

But the last three years of restraint and dogged courtship of al-Qaim by a series of American units -- as well as their firepower -- set the stage for the locals to turn to them when they could no longer stand the murders and kidnappings.

That came in April 2005 when the 22 tribes in the region banded together to oust the terrorists, Farhan said. They were initially successful, but the insurgents regrouped, recruited additional fighters from Mosul and Ramadi and came at al-Qaim with a vengeance in September 2005.

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"They were hoping to build an Islamic country in al-Qaim," Farhan said.

The insurgents had erected a sign near Husayba proclaiming it to be the Islamic Republic of al-Qaim, according to Shuster.

"These terrorists are really far from Islamic thoughts They pretend they are Muslims but they are so far from Islam because they are a bunch of killers and criminals," he said.

Abul Mahal, the main tribe in the area had for hundreds of years profited from all trade -- legal and otherwise -- at al-Qaim, had been pushed out of power.

That was when the tribes approached the U.S. Marines stationed in al-Qaim. If they would help rout the terrorists, the sheiks would set up a representative government and provide the seed corn for a police force, also representative of the tribes.

Al-Qaim paid a high price for initial embrace of the insurgency and then its decision to fight them.

According to Farhan, terrorists killed 749 people and gravely wounded 340. More than 6,250 houses were damaged in the fighting; 431 of them were razed to the ground. More than 400 shops were destroyed and 624 vehicles were damaged. These were not damaged by U.S. action but by the insurgents. Farhan keeps a careful inventory because he is seeking $67,071,415 from the Iraqi government to compensate the people for their losses.

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Operation Steel Curtain took place in November 2005, a major offensive that ousted the terrorists and saturated the area with U.S. and Iraqi forces. It was "cleared," in the parlance of counterinsurgency doctrine, and then it was "held," through persistence presence. Having won a tactical victory over the locals by beating off the terrorists, they began the "build" phase, empowering local councils, sheiks and mayors with funding and projects to restore essential services and repair schools and clinics.

Shuster knows al-Qaida is not beaten, but he thinks there has been a change in the way the organization views al-Qaim strategically.

"I think al-Qaida in Iraq is in a lull here," said Shuster. "I think al-Qaida thinks the decisive battle is gonna be closer to Baghdad. They think al-Qaim is an area they must transit. But al-Qaida does not think they need to or should exert too many resources here that could be better applied closer to Baghdad."

Ironically, having something approaching normalcy and stability in al-Qaim -- the victory sought by counterinsurgent tactics -- makes finding al Qaida as it transits the area is much more difficult.

"Heavy-handed tactics like locking down an entire neighborhood and searching house to house, it doesn't work here anymore." Shuster said.

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