Diyala province in northeastern Iraq is facing its latest crackdown at the hands of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In December 2011, the provincial council there voted to turn the governorate into an autonomous region. The decision led to an immediate backlash by Shiites within the province and by the central government. Protests against the move broke out, militias were reportedly blocking roads, and Baghdad asserted control over the local security forces. This was just the latest example of how Maliki has used his power against those in Diyala that oppose his agenda.
On January 20, 2012, security forces tried to arrest two Diyala politicians. One was Mohammed Talal Jabouri, the deputy governor and a member of the Iraqi Accordance Front. He was in Jordan at the time, so he was not detained. The other figure, Abdul Jabbar Ibrahim Khazraji, was not so lucky, and was picked up. Khazraji is the head of the Accordance Front on the provincial council. Parliamentarian Salim Jabouri who is part of the list that includes the Accordance Front said that twenty other members of the party had been arrested since November 2011 on terrorism charges by Baghdad, and that nine other politicians from the list have warrants out for them in Diyala. The latter were reportedly hiding in Kurdistan as a result. Many believe that they are wanted by the central government, because they supported the drive to turn Diyala into an autonomous region at the end of 2011. With Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki controlling both the Interior and Defense Ministries, any prominent arrest warrants like these draws suspicion that they are being done for political reasons.
There might also be a move underway to replace the governor of Diyala. According to the head of the provincial council Taleb Mohammed Hassan from the Kurdish Coalition, some want to get rid of Governor Abdul Nasir al-Muntasirbillah of the Accordance Front. The governor also supported the drive to turn Diyala into a region, and had his house burned, and one of his bodyguards killed as a result. He ended up fleeing the province, and has not returned since then. A majority vote by the provincial council could unseat Muntasirbillah. His Accordance Front holds the most seats in Diyala with nine, and has an alliance with the Kurdish Coalition with six seats, and the Diyala Coalition of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council with two. That coalition might have frayed, which would make the governor vulnerable, but with the Accordance Front, the Iraqi National Project of Deputy Premier Saleh al-Mutlaq, and the Iraqi National List of Iyad Allawi holding a total of 18 out of 29 seats, a new Sunni coalition could emerge to keep him in power.
The problems for the Accordance Front members and governor started in December 2011, when they, along with the Kurds voted for federalism. On December 12, a majority of the Diyala council passed a resolution to begin the process to make the governorate a region. This was due to a deal cut between the Accordance Front and the Kurdish Coalition, that allegedly involved the former supporting the Kurds desire to annex the disputed territories within the province to Kurdistan. This brought an immediate reaction from local Shiites and Premier Maliki. The provincial security forces, which are controlled by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, appeared to be working with elements of the Mahdi Army and Badr Brigade to shut down highways. Shiite crowds also appeared in the provincial capital Baquba, plus Muqtadiya, Khalis, and other cities protesting the decision. During the demonstrations, the provincial council building was sacked. Governor Muntasirbillah claimed that the security forces and militias had taken over the province. There were also stories that the commander of the Iraqi ground forces, General Ali Ghidan had personally been put in charge of Diyala. This led to the governor and Accordance Front members of the provincial council to flee to Khanaqin and Kurdistan, and the Kurds to withdraw their support for the regionalism issue. The drive for federalism in Diyala was portrayed as a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Kurds, but it had much more to do with the relationship between the center and periphery of the country. Many provinces, not just Diyala have complained that they do not get big enough budgets, that their development plans are hindered by Baghdad, and that the security forces are under the control of the central government. These issues were the real driving forces behind Diyala’s vote.
After December’s fireworks, Maliki appeared to offer a concession to the Accordance Front. In January, he and the Diyala Operations Command, which is in charge of security promised that they would protect seven members of the party if they returned to Baquba. That led some to come back on January 20. The rest continue to stay in Khanaqin or Kurdistan, because they still do not feel safe enough. Maliki has often used a carrot and stick approach with his opponents. After threatening the Accordance Front members with the security forces, protests, and militiamen, he then offered them the chance to return to their jobs under his benevolent protection.
Diyala has seen this tactic by the prime minister several times before. Before and after the January 2009 provincial elections, Maliki used the security forces under the guise of an anti-insurgent operation to crack the alliance between the Sons of Iraq and the Accordance Front. During the 2005 vote, the Sunnis had largely boycotted, leaving the province under the control of Shiite and Kurdish parties. Maliki did not want the Sunni parties to assume power, so he had the army and police round up Sons of Iraq and Accordance Front members, while offering jobs to any Sons member who would leave their unit and work directly for Baghdad, again showing the divide and conquer technique. During the March 2010 parliamentary balloting, arrest warrants were issued for three members of the provincial council who were running as candidates for Maliki’s rival Iraqi National Movement. Then during the summer of that year, the central government moved in to try to disarm the Sons of Iraq, again leading to a wave of arrests across the province, while at the same time offering employment to others. Seen in this context, the recent events in Diyala are nothing new. Whenever the province has displeased Maliki he has swiftly used the security forces to detain those he disagrees with, and then he quickly offers concessions to try to split his opponents. It also shows how the army and police have been used by Maliki to achieve his political goals. His control over them has only increased since the 2010 elections as he is now the acing Defense and Interior Minister.
At the end of 2011, Diyala was one of many provinces that were calling for federalism. Baghdad’s control over money, development, and the security forces made many in the governorate frustrated. Maliki’s dispute with the Iraqi National Movement after the 2010 election, and the arrest of hundreds of alleged Baathists also played a role. Maliki acted swiftly, joining with local Shiite groups to not only protest the autonomy drive in the streets, but sent in the security forces to intimidate and arrest politicians as well. That effectively cowed the Accordance Front politicians who were pushing the matter, and made the Kurdish Coalition back away from their initial support. It will probably take several more weeks for Diyala to return completely to normal, and have all the members of the provincial council back in Baquba. The recent turn of events will be a stark reminder that Prime Minister Maliki’s call for a strong government does not just mean for authority to remain with the center, but with him, and that he will not hesitate to use the security forces to achieve those goals.
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- “Iraqiya refuse to attend sessions in Baquba, fear for security,” AK News, 1/10/12
- “Parties trying to replace Diyala governor,” AK News, 1/17/12
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