U.S. troops conducted a medical outreach engagement in this tiny village near the Iranian border. But maintaining a presence across the vast sweep of rural Diyala Province has been a challenge, and new concerns over Shiite areas could further stretch U.S. and Iraqi forces.

U.S. troops conducted a medical outreach engagement in this tiny village near the Iranian border. But maintaining a presence across the vast sweep of rural Diyala Province has been a challenge, and new concerns over Shiite areas could further stretch U.S. and Iraqi forces. (Michael Gisick / S&S)

FORWARD OPERATING BASE CALDWELL, Iraq — Commanders of the undermanned cavalry squadron that patrols this vast swath of Diyala province say close partnerships with Iraqi security forces and a careful choice of where and where not to focus their operations have allowed them to put a significant dent in Sunni insurgent groups here.

But renewed fighting between Shiite militias and U.S. and Iraqi troops elsewhere in the country has forced a re-evaluation of both parts of that formula last week, leading to a pause in some operations targeting al-Qaida in Iraq.

An Iraqi army quick-reaction unit that has been key to operations here in recent months is being pulled out of the area as other Iraqi units face tough fighting in Baghdad and Basra, American advisers to the unit say. Though its stay here was always temporary, its departure leaves a void that cannot easily be filled, and some officers worry about the extent to which other Iraqi security forces here have absorbed former members of the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia at the center of fighting further south.

Meanwhile, American commanders have been forced to turn new attention to Shiite areas that have seen few problems under the Mahdi Army’s monthslong ceasefire.

“We’re not going to put up with any type of civil disturbance,” said Lt. Col. Paul Calvert, 2nd Squadron’s commander. “All that does is distract us from our focus on AQI.”

The bodies of four slain Sunnis were found in a Shiite section of northern Balad Ruz, a mixed city of about 100,000, last week. But Calvert said it’s not clear that those deaths were part of a larger trend, and so far, nothing more alarming has turned up.

Still, at least some distraction appears inevitable, and the new uncertainty facing this squadron reflects the challenges that will likely face American forces in many parts of Iraq if fighting in Shiite areas continues or worsens. Already stretched thin, many American units have little combat power to spare.

“Some areas here have been worse than others,” Calvert said. “If an area has been quiet, we’ve had to take the stance that maybe we don’t need to go there.”

The squadron arrived here in December, though it later spent a month participating in operations in the Diyala River Valley farther north. Two of the squadron’s troops — the cavalry equivalent of companies — were left behind in Mosul, and though a howitzer battery has been converted to serve as a motorized ground unit, the squadron remains at partial strength.

“It scared the hell out of me at first,” Calvert said. “We realized early on that everything we do has to be focused on working with Iraqi army and police. If we tried to do unilateral operations, there was no way.”

Attempts to form “Sons of Iraq” groups, the American-funded security checkpoints that have served as “force-multipliers” for American units elsewhere, have met with decidedly mixed results. The nucleus of a group has been set up in the Al-Nidah Tribal Area, a troublesome expanse of desert along the Iranian border, but attempts to set up checkpoints closer to the urban center in Balad Ruz were not successful.

According to Marine Reserve Maj. Chuck McGregor, the commander of a Military Transition Team working with Iraqi forces that operate in the area, the nascent “Sons of Iraq” group was infiltrated by Al-Qaida. An Iraqi Army unit attempting to link up with the group was ambushed on March 12, killing three Iraqi soldiers. The remaining “Sons of Iraq” were then themselves ambushed. Several were killed and the rest fled.

“We’re back to square negative-one on that,” McGregor said.

U.S. and Iraqi forces responded with a sweep that netted 70 detainees, 39 of who were sent up for charges. One of the detainees confessed to slitting the throats of three “Sons of Iraq,” McGregor said.

Though McGregor said he believes al-Qaida is now “significantly off balance,” preventing their return will depend on maintaining a troop presence in the area.

“The biggest challenge is making a commitment to security and keeping it,” said Marine Corps Lt. Dan Morosani. “If there’s a vacuum, AQI will see that and exploit that. We’ve seen that again and again in Diyala.”

But McGregor expressed doubts about the Shiite-dominated 5th Iraqi Army Division, which is set to take over for the battalion of the 1st Iraqi Army Division that is part of the quick reaction force, as well as about the Iraqi Police units here.

“JAM came in and helped fight AQI, but they’ve insinuated themselves further and further into the police and security structure, basically incubating,” he said, using the acronym for Jaesh al-Mahdi, Arabic for Mahdi Army.

Calvert expressed a more optimistic view of Iraqi security forces, saying he’d picked up little indication of sectarian bias among the 5th Iraqi Army Division and praising the Shiite police chief in Balad Ruz.

“A lot of it depends on their leadership, he said. “The chief has shown that he is more than willing to throw an AK on his shoulder and jump in with us.”

As Calvert sees it, the larger challenge is the one posed by the vast terrain and relatively thin forces.

“As AQI has been pushed out of the Diyala River Valley and the cities, they’re going into these little hamlets in the desert,” he said. “That’s where they’re gaining their safe haven. We can’t get IA and IP into every little village.”

An increased focus on Shiite areas would only make that more true.

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