WAJIHIYAH, Iraq (Reuters) - The U.S. commander dons his headset as a convoy of armored vehicles rumbles along the dusty roads of the fertile Diyala river valley in Iraq, and he starts his macabre tour.
It’s a gruesome tale: beheadings inside a mosque by Islamist militants, police running extortion rackets, bombs buried just off the road and five women killed by a female suicide bomber.
Listening attentively are Iraqi army and police generals, firing back questions and soaking up information that will be crucial when they flood the area with forces as part of a major Iraqi operation across Diyala province.
The Iraqi government wants all U.S. combat troops out in 2010 or 2011 under a “time horizon” negotiated with Washington.
There are some 144,000 U.S. troops in Iraq — about 20,000 fewer than at the start of this year — and both U.S. presidential candidates say they want to cut numbers further.
But as Diyala province shows, the war isn’t over. Although violence overall in Iraq has declined dramatically over the past year, this ethnically and religiously mixed province north of the capital has remained stubbornly violent.
U.S. and Iraqi commanders say they are determined to tame it, while employing new tactics that require the increasingly confident Iraqis to rely less than before on the firepower of their American allies.
The enemies are still out there.
Sunni Arab al Qaeda militants have regrouped here after being driven out of other parts of Iraq. Some are holed up in deep bunkers surrounded by booby-traps in dense palm groves. One tunnel found by U.S. forces ran 150 meters from inside a mosque.
And Shi’ite militias also took up arms to protect their communities, growing in strength as the Sunni groups weaken.
U.S. and Iraqi forces launched an offensive here last month, and U.S. Lieutenant-Colonel Bob McAleer of Fires Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, says they have now cleared most major roads and towns in his patch between Baquba and Muqdadiya.
A report published by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War last week about Diyala concluded that progress had definitely been made by U.S. forces and it was now important for them to work with Iraqis to maintain the gains.
“The perception of the government of Iraq is that this is a 10 foot enemy giant. But it really is not now,” said McAleer.
He says there are about 1,000 U.S. and Iraqi soldiers and police in his area. But that will mushroom to 7,000 as Iraqi army and police units sweep in to hold the gains, ferret out insurgents, take on the militias and let families return home.
“I think we are going to do about five or six months of work here in about the next two weeks and I think that’s, quite honestly, pretty realistic,” he said.
The convoy stops at a U.S. combat outpost near the palm groves that fringe the winding river. Brigadier-General Adil Abbas, 1st Brigade, 1st Division of the Iraqi army sits in front of satellite photos covering a wall for a briefing.
The 1st Division is considered one of the best in Iraq. It took on Sunni insurgents in the western Anbar province and then intervened successfully earlier this year in the southern city of Basra in a prolonged battle with Shi’ite militias.
One of his officers gets out some colored pens to make notes on a map, leaning on an upright air-conditioning unit as a U.S officer outlines the issues the Iraqis will face.
McAleer makes clear the responsibility will lie with Abbas when troops from the U.S. squadron join the much larger force of three Iraqi army battalions poised to move up from Baquba.
He tells the Iraqi general that U.S. troops will accompany his forces, “but they are going to follow your lead.”
Then word comes through that the Americans have detained two brothers wanted for murder in a town further up the road. “Stop! Leave some people for me to detain,” jokes Abbas.
The town of Wajihiyah has a reputation as an al Qaeda stronghold. But as the U.S. convoy rumbles through in the waning late afternoon heat there is no sign of hostility.
Children ride bicycles, there’s a small market selling clothes and vegetables, old men sip tea outside cafes and a young boy waves and gives the convoy a thumbs up.
Near the town is a small hamlet that McAleer says was controlled by al Qaeda four weeks ago. U.S. forces blasted their way in and started building a combat outpost on August 2, blocking a route used freely by insurgents until then.
A yellow digger is still shifting earth to fill blast walls around the dusty compound while two village elders sip drinks and talk to soldiers on a porch.
Sunni insurgent leaders have probably escaped. But McAleer says that if the Iraqi forces can instill a sense of security it will be a more important achievement than catching them.
Later, the American officer goes to the Iraqi general’s headquarters for a local meal of chicken and rice.
“We discussed his plan. It looked good. And then we just swapped war stories.”
Editing by Peter Graff and Sami Aboudi