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Is Iraq's wild west moving east?
In Iraq's volatile Anbar province, where more than 1,200 U.S. service members have been killed, success comes in waves. But with insurgent attacks against Iraqi police, government buildings and U.S. troops at record lows, some believe that the one-time Sunni insurgent stronghold has turned a corner.
"The area is very much secure," said David, an Iraqi interpreter who has worked with U.S. forces in the provincial capitol of Ramadi for the past three years, including with a unit of Utahns in 2005 and 2006 - and who for safety reasons asked that his full name not be revealed.
As most things go in Iraq, Ramadi's relative success - attacks are down from 25 per day last year to about four per day in the past few months - is a double-edged sword. Anbar no longer owns Iraq's title for "most deadly province." That now belongs to Baghdad. But there is growing evidence that the Sunni insurgency has shifted its attention away from the Utah-size western province in favor of a Maryland-sized province east of the Iraqi capital.
Attacks against U.S. forces in Diyala Province have soared as much as 70 percent since the beginning of the year, according to the Brookings Institute's Iraq Index, a compilation of economic and security data on the war-torn nation. The most recent deadly attack, a roadside bombing on Sunday, claimed the lives of six U.S. soldiers, including Utahn Michael Pursel, and a Russian journalist.
"In 2006, Diyala Province was the eighth most violent of Iraq's 18 provinces," said Jason Campbell, who helps administer the index. "Now it's number three after Baghdad and Anbar, and at the rate it's going, it may surpass Anbar soon."
Shortly before he was killed in a U.S. air assault, al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi reportedly declared Diyala the new center of his intended Islamic caliphate.
Campbell said it is likely that al-Qaida fighters and other Sunni insurgents have moved directly from Anbar to Diyala.
Major Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of the Army's 25th Infantry Division, gave a similar assessment in March.
"We do think some of the enemy forces not only have moved out of Baghdad but also may have moved from Al Anbar province," Mixon said in a briefing from Iraq. "It is important to the Sunni insurgency to try to control Diyala."
And that may make the eastern province - which borders Shiite-dominated Iran and has a multi-sectarian population - even more volatile than Anbar, which is overwhelmingly Sunni.
In response, part of the "surge" of troops originally intended for Baghdad and Ramadi has been diverted to Diyala, including the contingent of Stryker Brigade soldiers, of which Pursel was a member.
One of Pursel's fellow Stryker team members, Benjamin Hanner, of Redding, Calif., told The Washington Post last month that he had been all over Iraq, but said Diyala "is by far the worst place I've ever been in my life.
"This is what you think war is going to be."
But some Iraqis, like David the interpreter, remain hopeful. With the success in stamping down the violence in Anbar and Ramadi, he is confident that the day is coming when he will be seen as a patriot, not a turncoat.
"The city is back to the people," he said. "With the help of tribal leaders and the U.S. Army, Ramadi is now safer than Baghdad."