Turning on al-Qaeda in Baquba

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Franco Pagetti for TIME

Gen. Ray Odierno listens to a briefing about U.S. Army operations in Baquba, Iraq.

I helicoptered today into Baquba, the centerpiece of the current U.S. offensive in Iraq, with Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno —and then drove via Stryker brigade into the center of the fight for a briefing. It was midday, and the sun was so hot that both sides in the battle seemed to be taking a siesta. Only a few small explosions could be heard in the distance; there was no small arms fire. Odierno—a supertanker of a man with a shaved head who looks like ancient turtle—met with a group of battalion commanders in the ruins of a medical center that had been blasted, by someone, several years earlier. Situation maps were leaned against a white ceramic tile wall; the officers sat in campaign chairs, hunched in a tight semi-circle; bottles of cold water were passed around.

The news from the battle was good. That was no surprise: in a guerrilla war like Iraq, every engagement that can be described as a "battle" is inevitably won by the superior force, which is part of the frustration. Baquba, the capital of Diyala province just northeast of Baghdad, had been infiltrated by al-Qaeda over the past year—between 400 and 500 al-Qaeda fighters were estimated to be in the city when the U.S. forces attacked on Monday, and now those who remain are surrounded, in a slowly tightening cordon. These sorts of operations have taken place multiple times in multiple cities during this war, to little effect—usually the terrorists slip away, as they did in Falluja in 2004, only to turn up elsewhere. That may well happen again this time. But there is one promising development in Baquba.

A lieutenant colonel named Bruce Antonia told Odierno about preparing to attack the Buhritz neighborhood a few nights earlier when he was approached by local Sunni inusurgents—members, they said, of the 1920 Revolutionary Brigades—who were streaming out of the neighborhood. "They said they'd been fighting al-Qaeda but had run out of ammunition and asked us to supply them. We told them, 'Show us where AQ is and we'll fight them.'" The insurgents did and the neighborhood was cleared.

A second lieutenant colonel named Avanulis Smiley picked up the story from there, "Sir, they've also showed us seven buried IED sites. They gave us specific information—description of the houses, gate color, tree trunks."

After the briefing I asked Colonel Antonia if he'd asked the Sunnis why they had turned against al-Qaeda. "They said it was religious stuff," he said. "AQI demanded that the women wear abayas, no smoking and they preached an extreme version of Islam in the mosque. They'd also spent the winter without food and fuel because of the violence al-Qaeda was causing. One guy said to me, 'We fought against you because you invaded our country and you're infidels. But you treat us with more dignity than al-Qaeda,' and he said they'd continue to work with us. I've been involved in many operations here and this is a first—usually everybody's shooting at us. This is the first time we've had any of them on our side." (In web postings, the 1920 Revolutionary Brigade has denied it is cooperating with the Americans.)

Odierno later told me similar anti-al-Qaeda rebellions were happening throughout the country, including some neighborhoods of Baghdad. "Iraqis notice things. They noticed what happened when we began to support the Sunni tribes against al-Qaeda in al-Anbar. And al-Qaeda seems to have overplayed its hand."

At a second briefing, at a bunkered, joint U.S.-Iraqi command post in the middle of Baquba, the news was less optimistic. An Iraqi General said that he was pretty certain that the al-Qaeda leadership had slipped away, north to Tikrit and Samarra, and that many of the fighters were burying their equipment before they left town, hoping to return—as always—when the Americans left. "Well, it's up to you to make sure they don't come back," Odierno said.

But the Iraqi Army and local police have been pretty unreliable in Diyala—riddled with Shi'ite militia elements, incompetence and corruption. "They replaced the commander of the 5th Iraqi Army," Odierno told me. "He had a pretty clear Shi'ite agenda. The new guy says the right things, but we just don't know yet what he's going to be like."