Monday, February 2, 2015

Iraq’s Diyala Province An Insurgent Stronghold

Diyala is a perfect example of on going conflict in Iraq. When the insurgency regenerated itself in 2012, Diyala became one of its main bases. That prompted the entry of Shiite militias to fight them. In 2014 during the summer offensive the different factions joined together to seize control of the northern and eastern sections of the province. Recently the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and militias claimed that they had secured the entire province, but that was more propaganda than fact. The insurgents are still strong in rural sections and will continue to threaten not only Diyala, but neighboring Salahaddin and Baghdad as well.

Insurgents rebuilt their networks in Diyala in 2012 in the north around Qara Tapa and in the northeast by Sadiya, and used them to attack into the center of the governorate in Muqtadiya and Baquba (Institute for the Study of War)

When the insurgents were rebuilding their networks Diyala was one area they focused upon. They started by recruiting and re-establishing themselves in places like the Hamrin region and Sadiya and Jalawla in the east, which had never really been cleared of armed groups even during the height of the U.S. presence. In 2012 the Islamic State began asserting itself by hitting places like Baquba and the Diyala River Valley. In November 2013 it held a parade in Muqtadiya in the center of the province. The next month it declared a wilayat or governorate in Diyala. During those two months it also attacked an Emergency Police headquarters in Baquba, and a military base in Muqtadiya. The province was also used to move men and supplies into Salahaddin and Baghdad as well as hit targets there too. Diyala was an ideal area for the militants to rebuild. Its rural areas are noted for their heavy foliage, which offers perfect cover. The Diyala River Valley also provides access throughout the length of the governorate for the movement of men. These remain insurgent strongholds up to the present day.

As the militants began picking up their activities there was a response by Shiite armed groups. By the summer of 2013 there were the first reports of new militia activity in Diyala. Just as IS was marching through the streets of the province, the governor complained that militias were setting up fake checkpoints and carrying out extra judicial killings. Likewise, in April 2014 the Mutahidun party of Speaker Osama Nujafi demanded that the security forces do something about militia activity in the governorate. This was history repeating itself. In 2005 when the Badr Brigade took over the Interior Ministry it began sending in police commandos under its control into Diyala to carry out sectarian arrests, kidnappings and killings. Like then, the militias were retaliating in response to the insurgency. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also came to rely upon the Shiite armed factions more and more starting in 2013, as he was unhappy with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) who proved incapable of containing the growing violence throughout the country. Diyala was one of the first areas these militias went outside of Baghdad.

IS also built up its bases in eastern Diyala’s Baladrooz (Institute for the Study of War)

2014 was when security started really deteriorating in the province. At the start of the year there were complaints, especially in rural areas that there were no security forces to be seen. This was especially true as units were deployed from Diyala to Anbar where open fighting had broken out in January. That month the Islamic State took the town of Edheim in the northwestern section of the province, which had previously been used by Al Qaeda in Iraq. It was also spreading from the Hamrin Mountains and Diyala River Valley into Buhriz in the center, Bani Saad in the south, and Baladrooz in the east. The ISF responded with the first sweep of the year in the Hamrin area. In March, the insurgents picked up their attacks with a sophisticated assault upon Qara Tapa in the north above Lake Hamrin. That began with blowing up a bridge leading to the town to inhibit the security forces from responding. A police station and four checkpoints were then attacked forcing the ISF to withdraw. A neighboring town was then seized as well. It took six hours of fighting to retake the area. The security forces responded with mass arrests before withdrawing. The next month IS was still harassing Qara Tapa with mortar fire leading to the governor to demand help from the central government. At the end of the month the Islamists took over six voting centers in the area during parliamentary elections. At the start of 2014 the Islamic State ramped up its operations in several provinces to let the populace and authorities know that it was back. The dramatic attack upon Qara Tapa and then harassing operations afterward were the hallmarks of this campaign. The situation would only get worse when the summer started.

In June the insurgents made a major thrust in Diyala as part of its summer offensive. The Islamic Stated formed alliances with other armed factions such as the Naqshibandi, the Islamic Army, and the Revolutionary Tribes to carry out joint operations against the government. Attacks were focused upon Sadiya in the northeast, Qara Tapa in the north, Mansuriya in the east, and Baquba in the center. In the first two areas the ISF collapsed and abandoned their positions. The peshmerga filled this vacuum, but not soon enough to stop a tremendous loss of territory to the militants. 17 villages in Qara Tapa, 16 in Sadiya, 15 in Edheim, 12 in Jalawla, and 7 in Mansuriya fell. Only the attempt to take the provincial capital of Baquba was turned back. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responded by giving Transportation Minister, Badr Organization head and Diyala native Hadi Ameri control of security in the governorate. The ISF counter attacked at the end of June re-taking Edheim and Mansuriya. The events in Diyala mimicked what happened in many other regions of northern Iraq in June. The police and army simply gave up in many places giving the insurgents free reign. If not for the intervention of the peshmerga and the rallying of the ISF by the end of the month even more of the province would have fallen into the hands of the militants.

In the following months the ISF and peshmerga would launch operation after operation in Diyala, Many locations were cleared time and again only to have pro-government forces return to them. A classic example was the Hamrin Mountains cleared in July, October, and November. The ISF and peshmerga simply did not have the forces to hold an area for long. That meant after many security operations the insurgents would re-infiltrate leading to renewed fighting.

The last big piece of territory IS took in Diyala was the Sadiya-Jalawla area in August 2014 (New York Times)

IS had one more big push in it during the summer when it took the Sadiya-Jalawla area in the northeast. At the end of July, the peshmerga said that it had cleared the area, but ended up withdrawing allowing the IS to move right back in. In August the insurgents launched concerted attacks and took the area. It would take two months, but the peshmerga and militias finally retook Jalawla and Sadiya, leading to a whole new round of disputes as the Kurds claimed the region as part of the disputed territories, while the militias demanded that they leave. That argument has not been resolved yet.

The success of the summer offensive covered up the deep divisions and rivalries between the insurgents groups. The Islamic State like its predecessor Al Qaeda in Iraq wanted to dominate all Sunni armed groups in Iraq. In May it started fighting the Naqshibandi and Ansar al-Sunna in the Hamrin area in an attempt to undermine them with the hope that they could be taken over. Low level fighting continued into June, and by July, IS demanded that Ansar al-Islam pledge allegiance to it, which it refused to do. By the end of August IS appeared to be winning as several dozen Naqshibandi, Islamic Army and Mujahedeen Army members agreed to join in the Jalawla area, while the Islamists continued to assassinate rival leaders. A similar series of events played out across Iraq during the summer. Many armed factions believed they were entering into an agreement amongst equals to attack the government in June, but IS wanted to control them all. Given its size, armaments, organization and ruthlessness it was eventually able to incorporate many elements of these rivals groups into its own cadres.

Another conflict that emerged was a war over control of the water system in the province. The Islamic State seized several dams and irrigation systems in the center and northeastern half of Diyala and used them to threaten the surrounding areas. In September IS cut off water to Baladrooz, which prompted the ISF to try to retake the area. That stalled only after a few days. It then moved to the Sudour Dam in Muqtadiya. IS was still in control of that facility at the start of October and flooded two villages to block ISF operations in Sensl an IS base. In November the security forces did take the Edheim dam in the north. Then in December IS cut off the water to Baladrooz once again. This was another example of how the militants had a strong presence in the rural areas of Diyala. They were using them to attack the towns and cities of the province. This proved especially difficult for the ISF and militias to counter as the continuous security operations attested to.

Despite the constant back and forth the government declared victory over the insurgency in January 2015. On January 23 a new operation started to clear Muqtadiya led by Hadi Ameri. In just a few days, Ameri claimed that the entire province was freed of militants. That was repeated by General Abdul Amir al-Zaid who told the press that all cities, districts and sub-districts in Diyala were secured. Undermining his own statements, the general then said that a new operation was going to be started in the Hamrin Mountains. Ameri and the general were obviously getting ahead of themselves. While the militants in Muqtadiya were scattered, they quickly regrouped in the Diyala River Valley, Abu Saida and Mukhisa. They still have a strong presence in the east as well meaning that there will be continued sweeps to try to clear them out in 2015.

After the latest security operation IS has regrouped in Abu Saida (BBC)

As insurgent violence increased in Diyala so did militia retaliatory attacks. This recently hit the international papers when Shiite groups allegedly killed 72 people in Barwana. Any army officer told the New York Times that the militias were frustrated by recent fighting in the area and carried out the murders in the town as revenge. This was just the latest example of the simmering sectarian conflict in Diyala. In March 2014, the town of Buhriz was temporarily taken over by IS. When SWAT and militias retook it they burned three mosques and executed 23 young men. Asaib Ahl Al-Haq was believed to be behind the incident. In June, during the panic of the summer attacks an imam and two aides were picked up by militiamen in Sadiya and later found dead in a morgue, 44 prisoners were executed outside of Baquba, and at the end of the month 23 men were found executed in Muqtadiya. The security forces were sometimes complicit in these attacks as Reuters quoted a police captain in Baquba who said that they shared information with militias to carry out extrajudicial killings. In August, after the town of Imam Weis was attacked by IS, 34 people were shot in retaliation inside a mosque. Finally, in December men in uniforms kidnapped three councilmen from Bani Saad outside of Baghdad. Two were Shiite and were released, while the third who was Sunni was found shot in the head. The incident was blamed on militias who were attempting to dominate the town’s government. The situation had gotten so bad that a parliamentary committee was set up to investigate the destruction of homes and mosques during security operations in January 2015, and Prime Minister Haier Abad pledged that militias would not be allowed to continue with these types of abuses. Again, this was exactly what happened in Diyala from 2005-2008. Militias responded in kind ot insurgent attacks by targeting civilians. Sometimes this was in retaliation and other times it was more deliberate to try to force people out of regions to deny the militants their support base. As fighting picked up in the province these incidents only increased.

Diyala is not a main battlefront between government and insurgent forces, but it has all the hallmarks of Iraq’s on going conflict. It was one of the provinces where the insurgency rebuilt itself in 2012. Likewise it was one of the earliest places militias began deploying outside of Baghdad to fight them. Today, despite official claims otherwise eastern Diyala is still a major insurgent base. In fact, the statements about the governorate being cleared probably means that it will still not receive the forces necessary to clear and hold any areas, and repeated security operations will continue there for the foreseeable future. That will allow the insurgents to continue to use its bases to attack central Diyala and more importantly neighboring Salahaddin and Baghdad, which has been its major role in the last few years.


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