"So now what we are seeing, as some of the bad actors start returning,
these people don't want to give up those freedoms and don't want to return
to the way it was," Francey said. "They are calling on the tip line;
they're coming to the front gate, and they're saying, 'So-and-So is back.
Follow me. I will lead you to them.' It's exciting to watch it."
Officials said Wasat, with a population of one million, contained a
large presence of the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army, which revolted against the
Baghdad government at least twice over the last four years. In 2008, they
said, commanders of the Mahdi Army and the Special Group, pursued by Iraqi
and coalition forces, fled to Iran.
"Most of the big players decided to leave the area because it was very
unsafe for them," Francey said. "And it remains very unsafe for them."
Francey said the Al Qaida presence in Wasat has virtually disappeared.
He said many members of Al Qaida fled to Syria and have not returned. In
October 2008, the U.S.-led coalition transferred security responsibility for
Wasat to the Baghdad government.
"We pretty much stay on top of where they are running," Francey, who
reported joint U.S.-Iraqi combat missions, said. "And they're pretty much
staying on the run between Iran and Syria."
Francey said Iran continues to wield influence over the neighboring
province. He said the Iranian influence, including trade, has been opposed
by many in Iraq.
"I think there is a lot of Iranian influence that's ongoing," Francey
said. "To what degree — I think it's still very manageable. You talk to the
people on the street and they don't want it there. And there seems to be a
pretty strong push with Iraqis nationalism."