The severed head of the Iraqi man rests on the counter of a bamboo stall. His hair is close-cropped, the mustache is trim, and there's a bullet wound in his right cheek.
A note placed alongside the head is handwritten in Arabic; it proclaims "Martyr from the CLC"—the acronym for the Concerned Local Citizens groups that have teamed up with American forces to fight insurgents. The American soldiers from Bravo Company who made the gruesome discovery have just come from another mission, one that involved rousing Iraqi farmer Basel Diab Muhammed in the wee hours Sunday and checking the shrapnel scars he sustained escaping from gunmen who kidnapped him a month ago. Now, as they look at the head, two Iraqi Army soldiers confirm that the victim was indeed a member of the CLC. Later a quick exam by a medic at the combat outpost indicates that the beheaded man had been in his late 20s or early 30s.
Both the kidnapping and the beheading signal a grim new strategy by Al Qaeda in Iraq: an attempt to intimidate the CLCs and the Iraqis who support them. On Monday a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance to the Sunni Endowment office in the Azamiyah area of northern Baghdad. As people were evacuating the wounded, a suicide car bomber detonated his explosives just yards away, near a CLC office. Among the six reported killed in the attack was Riyadh al-Samarrai, head of a local CLC, who was apparently a target. The suicide bomber reportedly walked up to Samarrai and embraced him before setting off his explosives. "There's no question that the CLCs are the focus of their attacks now, even more than we are," says Capt. Travis Batty, 3rd Platoon leader with the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. "They know that these are the guys who can identify them. We could have Qaeda [cadres] walk right between our Strykers [armored personnel vehicles] on their way to do something bad and not know who they are. But the CLCs know them and point them out to us. That's why Al Qaeda in Iraq are going after them."
For Al Qaeda the stakes are high. The citizens groups, also known as "awakening councils," have helped reduce violent attacks by 60 percent in Diyala province, once a Qaeda stronghold and a particularly savage battleground, says Brig. Gen. James Boozer. Azamiyah, where the Monday attack took place, was also a safe haven for the insurgents until last year, when some citizens decided to join forces with the Americans to force them out.
CLC involvement has been a crucial element in helping U.S. troops stabilize volatile areas. Before the arrival of some 30,000 new American troops, the military often found itself in the frustrating position of driving insurgents from urban areas only to see them return once the Americans had moved on. Now U.S. commanders have the manpower to set up combat outposts in strategic areas as they evict Al Qaeda. "When we go into areas that we haven't before, it is apparent to locals that we're there to stay," says Boozer, assistant commander in chief for northern Iraq. We'll see an outpouring of concerned citizens as an added benefit." The goal ultimately is to hand these areas over to the Iraqis as the U.S. draws down troops. The CLCs help prevent insurgents from retaking hard-won terrain and also serve as a recruitment pool for the Iraqi army and police. Much depends on their ability to withstand Al Qaeda intimidation.
Expelled from Anbar province in the west, many insurgents fled to northern Iraq, including Diyala province, where they retain the ability to conduct what the U.S. military calls "spectacular attacks." A month ago, for example, a female suicide bomber killed 16 people in Muqdadiyah, a major provincial town. The number of attacks in the seven provinces that comprise Multinational Division-North has declined by 40 percent from June and July but is still higher than elsewhere in Iraq, Boozer says. The decrease in Diyala is 60 percent. The general confirms that Al Qaeda now targets civilians, Iraqi security forces and CLCs— of which there are 2,000 to 3,000 in Diyala.
CLC members are not all driven by patriotism or even antipathy toward Al Qaeda. Indeed, some of them have relatives who are members of the network. "Almost every family has a few guys in Al Qaeda," explains a senior CLC member. "I mean, after the war, CLCs must return to their families." For a significant number, being in a CLC brings a degree of self-importance—typically with a uniform and weapon to go with it—along with power and money. The United States pays accredited CLC members $300 a month, at a time when most Iraqi men are unemployed.
Regardless of motivation, the concerned citizens have helped clean up Muqdadiyah and an area that encompasses the towns of Shakarat, Walush, Hembis and other flashpoints. The group members, generally men ranging in age from their 20s to 50s, set up and maintain checkpoints in houses or along roads and also work with local residents delivering heaters, blankets and other goods. They are armed with AK-47 rifles—against an enemy equipped with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. "Muqdadiyah has gone from constant firefights to almost walking around without being shot at," says Batty. "That's due in large part to the CLCs. They've taken back their city."
The cost of belonging to a CLC, however, is rising. Basil Diab Muhammad, who lives in Walush, was seized by gunmen when he refused to let them use his house to fire on CLCs. "Three men. They were kids 18 to 20, not from around here," he says. The men detained him for six days and interrogated him about his connections with CLCs and the Iraqi Army. He was lucky: he got away. Al Qaeda operatives in Iraq typically kill CLCs. In the last two weeks 10 severed heads have been found in the Muqdadiyah area, some by the U.S. military, some by residents and others by CLC members themselves. In a show of defiance, the killers even left a couple of heads on a bridge just down the road from K-Wal combat outpost. U.S. Army officials acknowledge that the beheadings could damage the resolve of Iraqis to oppose and fight Al Qaeda. "I definitely don't think this is the end of it," says Batty. "I suspect it will probably get worse before it gets any better."
Local reaction so far has been mixed. Nazem Aziz Habib, a farmer in Shakarat, shrugs off the news of the latest grisly discovery. "I'm not scared," he says. "They already killed two of my brothers, and they stuck one of their heads on the bridge." Samir Gomaha Elwan, on the other hand, is shaken. "Of course I'm scared," he says, "because they can kill my father, my mother, my brother." And for Abd al Sattar Abd al Karim, it depends. "If I had a weapon to protect myself, my family, my neighbors, I can resist. But I don't, so I stay home. I don't get involved."
Some CLC leaders affect an air of unconcern. "People are accustomed to these things: suicide attacks, bombings, torture," says Abu Abdel al Rahman, the charismatic, swaggering boss of the concerned citizens group in Balur who has extended his influence well beyond the town. "This is just another tactic."