HAWIJA, Iraq – Nearly 6,000 Sunni Arab residents joined a security pact with American forces Wednesday in what U.S. officers described as a critical step in plugging the remaining escape routes for extremists flushed from former strongholds.
The new alliance — called the single largest single volunteer mobilization since the war began — covers the "last gateway" for groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq seeking new havens in northern Iraq, U.S. military officials said.
U.S. commanders have tried to build a ring around insurgents who fled military offensives launched earlier this year in the western Anbar province and later into Baghdad and surrounding areas. In many places, the U.S.-led battles were given key help from tribal militias — mainly Sunnis — that had turned again Al Qaeda and other groups.
Extremists have sought new footholds in northern areas once loyal to Saddam Hussein's Baath party as the U.S.-led gains have mounted across central regions. But their ability to strike near the capital remains.
A woman wearing an explosive-rigged belt blew herself up near an American patrol near Baqouba, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, the military announced Wednesday. The blast on Tuesday — a rare attack by a female suicide bomber — wounded seven U.S. troops and five Iraqis, the statement said.
The ceremony to pledge the 6,000 new fighters was presided over by a dozen sheiks — each draped in black robes trimmed with gold braiding — who signed the contract on behalf of tribesmen at a small U.S. outpost in north-central Iraq.
For about $275 a month — nearly the salary for the typical Iraqi policeman — the tribesmen will man about 200 security checkpoints beginning Dec. 7, supplementing hundreds of Iraqi forces already in the area.
About 77,000 Iraqis nationwide, mostly Sunnis, have broken with the insurgents and joined U.S.-backed self-defense groups.
Those groups have played a major role in the lull in violence: 648 Iraqi civilians have been killed or found dead in November to date, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press. This compares with 2,155 in May as the so-called "surge" of nearly 30,000 additional American troops gained momentum.
U.S. troop deaths in Iraq have also dropped sharply. So far this month, the military has reported 34 deaths, compared with 38 in October. In June, 101 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq.
Village mayors and others who signed Wednesday's agreement say about 200 militants have sought refuge in the area, about 30 miles southwest of Kirkuk on the edge of northern Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Hawija is a predominantly Sunni Arab cluster of villages which has long been an insurgent flashpoint.
The recently arrived militants have waged a campaign of killing and intimidation to try to establish a new base, said Sheikh Khalaf Ali Issa, mayor of Zaab village.
"They killed 476 of my citizens, and I will not let them continue their killing," Issa said.
With the help of the new Sunni allies, "the Hawija area will be an obstacle to militants, rather than a pathway for them," said Maj. Sean Wilson, with the Army's 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. "They're another set of eyes that we needed in this critical area."
By defeating militants in Hawija, U.S. and Iraqi leaders hope to keep them away from Kirkuk, an ethnically diverse city that is also the hub of Iraq's northern oil fields.
"They want to go north into Kirkuk and wreak havoc there, and that's exactly what we're trying to avoid," Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, the top U.S. commander in northern Iraq, told The Associated Press this week.
Kurds often consider Kurkik part of their ancestral homeland and often refer to the city as the "Kurdish Jerusalem." Saddam, however, relocated tens of thousands of pro-regime Arabs to the city in the 1980s and 1990s under his "Arabization" policy.
The Iraqi government has begun resettling some of those Arabs to their home regions, making room for thousands of Kurds who have gradually returned to Kirkuk since Saddam's ouster.
Tension has been rising over the city's status — whether it will join the semi-autonomous Kurdish region or continue being governed by Baghdad.
"Hawija is the gateway through which all our communities — Kurdish, Turkomen and Arab alike — can become unsafe," said Abu Saif al-Jabouri, mayor of al-Multaqa village north of Kirkuk. "Do I love my neighbor in Hawija? That question no longer matters. I must work to help him, because his safety helps me."
In Baghdad, crowds waited until nightfall for the arrival a bus convoy carrying more than 800 Iraqi refugees home from Syria. The buses — funded by the Iraqi government — left Damascus on Tuesday and were expected in the Iraqi capital on Wednesday. Government officials gave no details on the delay.