In these villages, Sunnis and Shiites agree
January 27, 2008
LITTLE BARWANA, Iraq — After years of fighting, two villages in Diyala province — one Shiite, the other Sunni — have agreed to a U.S.-brokered peace deal.
The agreement took place Thursday between about 50 village elders from the Shiite village of Little Barwana and the Sunni village of Big Barwana. Although small in scope, the deal represents a significant step toward reconciling Iraq’s majority Shiites and minority Sunnis in Diyala province, according to U.S. military officers.
The two Muslim sects have been locked in a retaliatory cycle of killings across Iraq since al-Qaida insurgents bombed an important Shiite mosque in the city of Samarra in 2006. Diyala province has seen some of the worst of the violence, which has only begun to subside in the last year, after President Bush ordered another 30,000 U.S. troops into the country.
“I think this will be a great example for the rest of Iraq,” said Lt. Col. Rod Coffey, commander of 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, who set the framework for the deal.
The two villages, which number about 1,000 residents each, had lived together for decades in peace, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. But after the 2003 U.S. invasion, Ansar al-Sunna — a Sunni insurgent group affiliated with al-Qaida — gained a foothold in Big Barwana. Inhabitants of Little Barwana turned to Jaish al-Mahdi, a Shiite extremist group, for protection.
After fighting broke out, the fields and date palm groves separating the villages became a no-man’s land laced with land mines and booby traps. Shootings and killings became commonplace.
“Both sides want peace pretty bad,” said Capt. David Gohlich, a company commander whose troops oversee the area. “People on both sides were getting killed every day.”
The 3rd Squadron soldiers, based in Vilseck, Germany, moved into the area earlier this month. Last week, Coffey, the squadron commander, met with leaders from both villages and told them he would accept nothing less than reconciliation between the two sides.
With sheiks from the two villages seated across from one another in the courtyard of an empty school, Coffey said he believes that terrorists and extremists no longer have refuge anywhere in Barwana. He urged the sheiks to lay aside their differences and work together for peace.
“I would ask in the beginning that each town not blame the other for what has happened in the past,” he said.
Coffey said there had been enough suffering on both sides.
The truce, which was signed by six representatives of each side, commits both villages to peace and prohibits them from harboring terrorists, extremists, insurgents, foreigners or armed people of any type. The deal also requires both villages to report cases of infiltration or the discovery of hidden weapons and bombs to U.S. and Iraqi forces.
It also requires both sides to turn in some weapons to authorities. It prohibits further exchanges of gunfire.
The agreement also requires both sides to open all roads and paths leading into their villages and to allow displaced people to return home. Farmers can return to their fields and take crops to market. A commission representing both villages will monitor the agreement and meet periodically to discuss any violations.
Several village elders from Big Barwana spoke passionately about the need for relations between the two villages to return to normal.
“We are the same. We have the same religion,” said one white-bearded sheik in a red and white headdress. “We have a positive intention when we sign this agreement.”
However, one young man was kicked out of the meeting after he began talking loudly and insulting the Sunni village elders from Big Barwana. According to an interpreter for U.S. forces, he was apparently the brother of an Iraqi policeman killed by Sunni insurgents, and he spoke darkly of revenge.
Iraqi police escorted the man from the meeting, and Coffey warned the crowd that he would not tolerate such talk in his presence.
“Attitudes like that will send us back into a spiral of violence for which will have to answer on Judgment Day,” he said.
After the sheiks signed the agreement, the two sides shook hands and kissed. One sheik went to Coffey and thanked him for working out the deal.
“You are my friend,” the man said, in halting English. “Thank you. Thank you.”
“It is important for us, too,” Coffey said.
A column of Stryker vehicles then took the sheiks from Big Barwana back to their village, an indication, it seemed, that even with a new peace agreement, dangers still abound.