AL-DULUYIAH, Iraq -- Politics and war make strange bedfellows, and in Iraq's Salah Al-Din Governorate the ironic relationship is that between a young charismatic cleric and U.S. and Iraqi security forces.
Mullah Najim Mahmud Khalil al-Jaburi -- antiterrorist preacher, coalition-force ally, and coordinator of more than 300 Sons of Iraq security guards -- was once an Al-Qaeda emir.
"Yes, it is a big change," he said through an interpreter at Fob Poliwada, a U.S. forward operating base near the city of Balad and the Jaburi Peninsula. "I was their media person. They used me to call the people to fight [the coalition forces]. I gave speeches in mosques, in videotapes, on the Internet and on CDs.
"Now I work with the coalition forces and my government," Najim said.
Najim's path to Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and back wasn't direct. At first he cooperated with U.S. forces, helping them inspect and assess repairs to war-damaged mosques. Then he turned against them as the nationalist insurgency gathered steam and coalition forces reacted as soldiers do when threatened.
"At that time, coalition forces were making a lot of mistakes," he said. "When coalition forces kept breaking into our houses the people started to hate them" and I was criticized for working with them.
"I am from a famous family and I was working with the coalition forces; a lot of people followed me. Some gangs were angry [about that] and started to give false information about me."
Spurious rumors, plus sermons criticizing U.S. use of what he said were corrupt Iraqi contractors in the area, unraveled his U.S. ties and spurred his embrace of Jaish Islami, also called Jaish Islamiyah, a nationalist insurgent organization formed by former Ba'ath Party officials and soldiers of Saddam Hussein's disbanded military.
Making contact with them in Al-Duluyiah wasn't difficult.
"This is the heart of darkness. The Sunni insurgency had its beginnings here," said Captain Anthony Keller, a company commander with the 32nd Cavalry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, based at Poliwada. "The al-Jaburi tribe seemed to have a special status under Saddam Hussein and didn't adjust very well to losing their position."
Najim moved to Baghdad and ran Jaish Islami's propaganda effort. Eventually he was captured in a counterterrorist sweep and sent to Abu Ghraib prison.
"Almost all the guys in [my] camp were foreign guys," Najim said. "At that time I spent five or six months listening to their ideology. They came from Afghanistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and other places. They gave a new ideology and talked about a big program to building an Islamic state in Iraq with all the different groups working together.
"At that time, Al-Qaeda soldiers were ready to fight, really ready to fight, better than our organization. And when they talked to me, I decided at last to follow this group."
The target of his speeches and sermons for Al-Qaeda as it's media emir -- a term for prince or commander -- was coalition forces, Najim said. He said he never appeared in a video showing an execution and never called for sectarian killings.
"I never feel sorry for the one year and one month I worked with Al-Qaeda -- at that time I felt I was working for my country," he said.
While its emir, he moved from house to house and spoke at more than 13 mosques, many in the East Rashid-Dura district of southeast Baghdad where Al-Qaeda had taken over the Hayy Hadar neighborhood. In late 2006, he was captured by U.S. and Iraqi troops and sent to Camp Cropper, a U.S. detention facility near Baghdad International Airport for insurgent detainees of high value or interest.
"The first time I was a detainee, I believed in continuing the fight," he said. "The second time, it was different. At Cropper they treated me kindly and I made friends with a soldier. This guy treated the detainees differently than at Abu Ghraib. All the time [the Americans] talked to me, and after six months they decided I that I had changed."
"When I got released, I [decided] to tell Al-Qaeda, 'If you don't put your weapons away and fight on the political side, I will fight you,'" he said.
His journey home from Cropper, to a farming town north of the Tigris, turned sentiment to action.
During a detour to Syria, he met with an AQI leader nicknamed "the Algerian," who he said was being protected by Syrian secret police. The man had no political program and just spoke about killing coalition forces and Sunnis who cooperated with the Americans and the Iraqi government. He also came away convinced that AQI wanted more sectarian bloodshed to exploit for the benefit of "other countries," which to Sunni Arabs in Iraq means neighboring Iran.
"When I returned to my home I found Al-Qaeda everywhere," he added. "The flag that was flying was the Al-Qaeda flag not the Iraqi flag; no one could work for the government or they and their families would be killed."
Najim, with help from a sympathetic sheikh, began speaking with U.S. soldiers at Poliwadi to the south of Al-Duluyiah and with Iraqi authorities, and began a reconciliation process.
He also says he did something else. He mounted the speaker's platform in his family's Khlafa Mosque in Al-Duluyiah, held aloft a pistol, and denounced Al-Qaeda. He said he also held up blank sheets of paper and urged congregants to put down their names and join him in the battle.
More than 100 AQI gunmen have been killed or captured by or with help from Sons of Iraq guards in the Jaburi Peninsula since then, he said.
AQI has tried to assassinate him at least seven times by his count.
Today the former Al-Qaeda emir, who is in his early 30s, is pressing participation in provincial elections slated to take place no later than the end of January and then in later national elections. Sunnis mostly boycotted earlier elections after the fall of Saddam Hussein that brought about the Shi'ite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. As a result, they feel marginalized politically.
U.S. and other sources say Najid does not promote any Sunni political party when urging the political process, which means more doors are open to him to expand his own influence.
"He definitely has a personal agenda and I believe that’s at the forefront of everything he does," said a U.S. intelligence officer who requested anonymity. "It's an advantage to stay apolitical so he can access the different groups."
Nevertheless, U.S. forces say Najim, who regularly meets with senior Iraqi government leaders and U.S. representatives in Baghdad, has been invaluable in helping improve the security situation in the area and that he did so at great personal risk.
"He's someone we watch [because of his past], but there is no reason to not work with him," the intelligence officer said. "He was a very high level AQI, but I don't believe he was ideologically driven. I think it I think it was more using his skills and the attention it brought."
The author gathered information for this piece while embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq