YUSUFIYAH, Iraq (CNN) -- Until recently, Yusufiyah was among the most dangerous places in Iraq.
U.S. Col. Michael Kershaw meets with Sunni leaders in Yusufiyah, formerly a hot spot for insurgent activity.
Located in the so-called "triangle of death," a violent area south of Baghdad, it was the site of frequent clashes between coalition forces and Sunni fighters. In May, two U.S. soldiers went missing in Yusufiyah and were never found, despite a massive search.
But today, Sunni tribal leaders in this town cooperate with U.S. forces in their battle against foreign fighters and al Qaeda in Iraq.
"It's all the roll of the dice. It's people and politics all intertwined down here," said Col. Michael Kershaw, commander of the Second Brigade, 10th Mountain Division.
Kershaw now greets his former enemies with kisses, hears their grievances, spends time in their homes and even shares meals with them. He is surprised at how far relations have progressed.
"Our hope a year ago was to establish very basic inroads down here," Kershaw said. "We thought the insurgency was far too deep for us to be able to effectively root it out and develop the relationship with the locals."
As happened in Anbar province to the west, local Sunni leaders from this town south of Baghdad finally turned on the al Qaeda extremists in their midst when the death and destruction became too much to bear.
"Killing people, stealing goats, everything, you name it," said Sheik Hamid Karbouli, when asked why he and his men now oppose al Qaeda. Karbouli has recruited some 150 volunteers to man checkpoints and carry guns. Sunni sheik lists grievances against al Qaeda »
The U.S. military calls the men concerned local citizens.
"I haven't had more than one IED destroy a vehicle in an area where concerned citizens were located ... in the past two months," Kershaw said.
To further encourage local tribesmen to turn against al Qaeda, the U.S. military pays local sheiks to provide security in their area; they receive up to $10 per man. It's a controversial policy, but one that has helped the U.S. military identify and stop insurgents, Kershaw said.
"In the three months since this has started, we have gathered more insurgents up, more terrorists, than we did in the preceding nine months. And that's because they have pointed out to us these people within their own ranks," Kershaw said.
The next step is to have these young Sunnis join the Iraqi police. For that to happen, the U.S. military needs the cooperation of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Cooperation, however, is slow in coming.
Iraq's central government is concerned these gunmen might turn into armed militias if the U.S. pulls out and civil war erupts. To assuage these concerns, Kershaw is registering as many of the local volunteers as possible, taking photographs and retinal scans, hoping leaders in Baghdad will agree to hire them as Iraqi police.
"What we see as being the end state down here is these tribes being brought back full into the government process," Kershaw said.
The Second Brigade has lost 53 men in Iraq. Their photos are proudly displayed in the brigade's headquarters. Some of the U.S. soldiers here have a hard time forgiving the Sunnis for what they might have done in the insurgency.
"Were some of these people part of the insurgency? Sure they were," Kershaw said.
"Our job over here isn't to do what's comfortable for us, and it isn't to do what we want," he said. "Our job is to do the nation's bidding. If this gets our nation closer to a solution for this country ... then that's what we're gonna do." E-mail to a friend
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