AFP: BAQUBA, Iraq, Sept 5 - Iraqi and US officials say they are close to defeating the deadly foreign fighter networks, Iranian spies and Iraqi resistance that make up the backbone of the insurgency in the eastern province of Diyala. AFP

by Jennie Matthew

BAQUBA, Iraq, Sept 5 - Iraqi and US officials say they are close to defeating the deadly foreign fighter networks, Iranian spies and Iraqi resistance that make up the backbone of the insurgency in the eastern province of Diyala.

Anti-US attacks have dropped and local sympathy for an increasingly effective police force has risen since the US-led coalition handed transferred authority to an interim government on June 28, they said.

Four days before the power shift, US and Iraqi forces battled a rebel offensive on the provincial capital of Baquba and landed a debilitating blow to the insurgents' operating abilities, US officers say.

Since then, no American soldier has been killed by a roadside bomb -- the scourge of the US military in Iraq, and fewer of the devices have been detonated.

But as Iraqi police and national guardsmen take on more and more work this summer, they have born the brunt of rampant suicide bombings and shootings.

Sixty-eight people died and more than 50 were wounded in a suicide car bomb attack on a police station in Baquba on July 28, one of the deadliest attacks since the US occupation administration was dissolved.

Operating on a ratio of one to every 600 citizens -- rather than the ideal one to 300 -- Diyala police are overstretched and under-equipped.

Few officers wear body armour. The Diyala force has six radios for an area the size of Rhode Island and New Jersey.

Given its 40 percent Sunni Muslim, 35 percent Shiite Muslim, 20 percent Kurd and five percent Turkmen population, officials see Diyala as a mini Iraq and a melting pot for all its destabilising factors.

The greatest danger, and one police had little prior experience with, are the highly-organised extremist networks that use the province as a battle ground and transit point, said police chief General Walid Khald Abd al-Salam.

Diyala's open farmland and sparse 1.4 million population are sandwiched between five neighbouring provinces in central Iraq and sprawled along a naked 240-kilometre (150-mile) border with Iran, leaving it exposed and accessible.

Salam says that of the Islamist militant groups, Ansar al-Islam is concentrated in the north, Ansar al-Sunna in the west and loyalists of Al-Qaeda's alleged chief in Iraq, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, around Baquba and Khan Beni Saad.

Suspects arrested in Diyala include several Syrians, Saudis and Afghans and a Yemeni national, Salam said.

"The problem was we didn't know the enemy exactly because all detainees were taken by the coalition. We had no idea what was going on. But after sovereignty, we're doing the arrests so we can classify these people".

But he says dialogue has enabled police to persuade some resistance fighters to turn away from violence. The army says military might has also played a role.

"The number of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) has tapered off significantly... They're absolutely afraid to go one on one. It's a type of guerrilla attack they've resorted to. They're not fighting on the streets anymore," said US Captain Michael Adams.

In addition to training Iraqi security forces to take its place, and policing trouble spots, the US army has waged a charm offensive to win the hearts and minds.

Flyers have been distributed, a radio phone-in held and a programme on the Iraqi police broadcast on Diyala TV.

But that can do little to neutralise Iranian or Iranian-sponsored operatives such as the Badr Brigades -- the militia of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

Although the group agreed to disarm in June, according to the terms of an anti-militia law, they remain far from dormant, even while its political wing sits in the government.

"Many Iraqis fled to Iran in the 1980s and as a whole they are working for and trained by the Iranians. Most belong to SCIRI. They're not active per se in Diyala, but they use it as a transit point," said Salam.

Another 4,400 Iranian exiles or members of the People's Mujahedeen, an Iranian opposition group working since the time of Saddam to destabilise the Islamic Republic, have been a thorn in Tehran's side for years.

Intelligence from an Iraqi sting operation in July led to the arrest of an Iraqi-Iranian handler who was involved in recruiting people to capture People's Mujahedeen officers and sell them to Iran, said US Army Major Kreg Schnell.

Registered as a cook, the detainee had press badges from two Iranian media outlets and spoke four languages. His computer hard drive was cramped with documents, Schnell said, which incriminated him as a spy.

But undeterred and flooded with what he says are thousands of police applicants, Salam is confident: "We try to beat them (the insurgents) and they try to beat us, but the future is ours.