Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has announced that Diyala province, northwest of Baghdad, will be the focus of the next government offensive. Diyala is one of the country’s most divided areas with steep sectarian divisions, internal Shiite and Sunni rivalries, one of the few provinces where Al Qaeda in Iraq is still strong, a problematic Sons of Iraq program, Kurdish designs on the northern regions, and a struggling government. All of Iraq’s deep-seated problems are evident in Diyala, and will be a true test for the government.
A Troubled Province …
Recent events in the province show just how volatile Diyala can be. At the beginning of May 2008, 300 Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters had a march with 50 pick up trucks through the village of al-Asiwa. In mid-April an insurgent car bomb went off in the provincial capitol of Baquba killing 50. At the beginning of that month, a parliamentarian from the secular Iraqi National List said that Kurdish Peshmerga fighters should withdraw from Diyala or be labeled militias by the government and be disarmed. From March to April U.S. forces raided police offices that were suspected of kidnapping Sunnis. In March when the government launched its offensive against the Mahdi Army in Basra, Sadrists attacked U.S. forces in Diyala in retaliation, which brought on Iraqi Army raids on Sadr’s offices in Baquba. Also in March, a mass grave of 52 bodies was found in the Diyala River Valley. Al Qaeda in Iraq had tried to impose its strict form of Islam upon the area and killed those that didn’t follow their rules. In February, the U.S. killed 3 Sons of Iraq (SOI) fighters, which caused 1000 of them to go on strike. That same month there was a protest against the Shiite provincial police chief, whom Sunnis accused of kidnapping and torture. In January, the New York Times reported that in the last six months 200 SOIs had been killed and 500 wounded in an upturn in attacks on U.S. organized volunteer fighters in the province.
Ruled By Shiites …
Diyala is a mixed province of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. There are many tribes in the area that are both Sunni and Shiite. After the U.S. invasion, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) sent in its Badr Brigade militia to seize Diyala. They occupied government offices for 3 weeks and fought Baathists and Sunni tribes in the process. By late April 2003 U.S. marines moved in and disarmed the SIIC fighters, although they still held political sway. After the local elections in 2005 the SIIC and Dawa were able to take over the provincial council, with an SIIC governor.
The Shiite run government has not done well since gaining power. During the surge an extra American Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) was sent to Diyala with limited effect. The head of the PRT told the New York Times in September 2007 that the provincial government would promise anything to the Americans, but not delivery unless forced to. The constant violence in the province also made reconstruction difficult.
With Sectarian Tensions …
The Shiites also control the provincial police, which they have used against the Sunni population. During the sectarian war period, Badr controlled police carried out sectarian killings of Sunnis. By the fall of 2007 however, the rival Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr took over, with the same results. In August 2007 for example, the U.S. commander for Diyala complained that Iraqi security forces were targeting Sunnis and holding them for up to ten months with no trials. A U.S. general said that Diyala had one of the worst militia infiltrations in Iraq. In December there was a shoot out in the provincial capitol between Shiite police and a Sunni Sons of Iraq (SOI) unit. Things came to a head in February 2008 when hundreds of SOIs walked off the job and local Sunnis protested the provincial Shiite police chief they accused of kidnapping, raping, and killing two women. The protests eventually subsided, and the SOIs went back to work, but the sectarian divide still remains.
Fueled by The Insurgency …
Besides the security forces, another source of sectarian tension is that fact that many Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters fled to Diyala in late 2006. Many Shiites accuse the Sunnis of being Islamist sympathizers. It is one of the few areas where violence continued at a high level during the surge, and it has been used as a base for insurgent attacks. During early 2007 Al Qaeda in Iraq tried to impose its will on the province through threats and killings, even against fellow insurgents such as the 1920 Revolutionary Brigades and the Islamic Army. This caused a division in the insurgency, just as it did across Iraq. The 1920 Revolutionary Brigades largely switched sides as a result, and began joining the U.S. organized Sons of Iraq to fight Al Qaeda. Some of the tribes in the region also began working with the U.S. as a result. The two sides have seen bitter fighting since then. The U.S. has also launched several operations in the province to keep the insurgents off guard, but they haven’t been able to dislodge them.
And A Problematic SOI Program …
The U.S. organized Sons of Iraq (SOI) program has been credited with helping turning around security since the surge, but in Diyala it’s been a mixed bag. There are between 8,000-10,000 SOI fighters in the province. There have been constant clashes with not only the insurgents, but with the local police and with each other as well. In March 2008 for example, an SOI unit attacked a police checkpoint, while an SOI commander was killed by the U.S. That followed a report by the Provincial Reconstruction Team in February that rival SOI units were fighting each other for power. The government has also been reluctant to integrate the SOI. One frustrated SOI commander in Baquba threatened to rejoin the insurgency unless his fighters were allowed to join the police. In March however, Voices of Iraq reported that as part of the deal to end the SOI protests against the provincial police chief, 400 tribesmen were to be folded into the local security force.
With the Kurds On Top…
To add to the Sunni-Shiite problems, there is also the issue of Kurdish ambitions. The Kurds seek to annex portions of Diyala to Kurdistan. In November 2007 the Kurdish Minister for National Resources was on a trip to Washington where he gave a speech that included a map showing “liberated” and “non-liberated” areas of Kurdistan. Part of the non-liberated area included northern Diyala.
What Happens Next?
It’s into this fractious atmosphere that Prime Minister Maliki intends to send his forces next. Unlike in Basra, Sadr City, Mosul and Maysan province, he will not be facing one easy to identify foe. Rather, Diyala has Mahdi Army fighters, militia controlled police, Al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgents, and Sons of Iraq, who are all fighting each other. How the government deals with this variety of groups will show whether Maliki is really capable of not only providing security, but whether he can fix some of the deep political divisions that continue to exist in Iraq.
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