Diyala’s sectarian toll mounting
BAGHDAD - A total of 50 people were killed in violence in Diyala province in August and September, the second highest number of victims in an Iraqi province, according to the Interior Ministry. That was ten less than Baghdad.
Diyala, 30 kilometres north of the capital, has a majority Shia population that has grown disgruntled with rival Sunnis since a July 17th suicide bombing at a market in the town of Khan Bani Saad. At least 120 people, including 14 children and 13 women and mostly Shias, were killed and 140 others were wounded in the explosion.
The Islamic State (ISIS) — an extremist Sunni group — claimed responsibility for the attack but residents and police, to a certain extent, pointed to the local Sunni community.
Since then, Sunnis in Diyala have faced a violent campaign of displacement, kidnappings and assassinations. Many have fled to other parts of Iraq.
Escaping Sunnis report threats, harassment and abuses committed by Shia-allied militias and the state’s predominantly Shia forces.
Mohammed al-Jubouri, a 46-year-old mechanical engineer who fled to the northern Kurdish area, said he received “several warnings posted at my front door, saying: ‘If you want your life, leave the area’.
“And, indeed we did. Here we are in Erbil, where we have been for seven months,” he said.
Jubouri said several of his relatives received similar threats, which they did not take seriously. “We haven’t heard from them in seven months. We think they were kidnapped and possibly killed,” he said.
Following the July blast, Diyala’s federal court announced that 11 security officials in Khan Bani Saad and Baquba were detained for questioning. Security officials, however, told The Arab Weekly that those arrested were Sunni security officers, who were not suspected of wrongdoing but were rather dismissed to clear the station of Sunni elements.
It is believed that Shia militias kidnapped and possibly killed 30 men, including Sheikh Talab al-Jumaili and three of his sons, as well as seven members of Albouhamdan tribe, from Khan Bani Saad, according to rights activists in the area.
They said that dozens of Sunnis were wounded in militia mortar attacks on predominantly Sunni villages and nearby districts.
In Diyala’s Khanaqin town, officials reported that the number of displaced Iraqis swelled the population by 50%, with the arrival of 23,000 displaced families. The authorities have not yet processed hundreds of others arriving in the area.
Officials said another 30,000 displaced people from Diyala arrived in Kirkuk in the northern Kurdish areas and thousands of others are believed to be in Mandali or fled to Iraq’s southern regions.
Abdul-Khaliq al-Azzawi, a member of Diyala provincial council, blamed the violence on sectarianism.
“The public campaign of displacing people in the region came after the bombing of Khan Bani Saad’s marketplace,” he said. “It seems that suspicion is being used as a pretext to displace people and rekindle sectarianism that some government and private circles may condone.”
Baquba Mayor Abdullah Hayali announced on October 8th that 15 people were wounded in mortar attacks on residential neighbourhoods in his district. Hours later, police said 27 people were killed and more than 30 were wounded in a mortar shelling that targeted Sunnis in four neighbourhoods in Baquba.
Mohammed al-Karbouli, a lawmaker on parliament’s defence committee, said he met with National Security Adviser Faleh al- Fayad to check on plans for “combating organised kidnappings and killings in Baghdad and Diyala”.
“The number of victims of sectarian violence peaked to 60 and 50 in total in the months of September and October,” he said.
The MP said his meeting came in the wake of mounting speculation that Fayad was responsible for kidnappings in Baghdad and Diyala.
“The preoccupation of the security forces in the war on ISIS does not mean that security will be lax elsewhere in Iraq,” Karbouli insisted.
Salem al-Saadoun, a political science lecturer at Baghdad University, accused Iran of being behind the displacement, saying Tehran sought to replace the residents with Iranian Shias to intentionally cause a demographic imbalance.
“Iran wants Baghdad and Diyala provinces with Shia majority so that both provinces can be added to Iraqi areas with Shia majority,” Saadoun said.
“By the same token, what we’re seeing is a tribal revenge,” he said. “The Shias want to avenge for the killing of scores of them [by] the hands of al-Qaeda, to which many Sunnis were seen to have sympathised”.
The government in Diyala is run by the Shia militia of Badr Organisation, which is headed by Hadi al- Amiri, who was given the security authority in the province.
Diyala Governor Muthana al- Tamimi confirmed in public comments last July that Amiri, the secretary-general of the Badr Organisation, was entrusted by the Baghdad government to manage Diyala’s security.
“It is an honour to be a soldier and fighter with Hadi al-Ameri,” Tamimi said at the time. “It is my duty to work under his instructions.”