Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Story of Diyala and the Promise of a New Awakening

So why are so many foreign fighters and homegrown suicide bombers blowing themselves up in Diyala? What do we know about Diyala?

Diyala province covers an area of 6,828 square miles (about 4% of the total area of Iraq). It extends to the northeast of Baghdad as far as the Iranian border. The province is drained by a major tributary of the Tigris, the Diyala River. These two rivers support a largely agrarian economy. Throughout much of the province are large groves of Date Palm. Diyala is also considered the orange capital of the Middle East.

Out of Iraq’s 18 provinces, Diyala is the 8th most populous. In 2004, it had an estimated population of 1.4 million people, mostly Sunni Arabs, with a sizeable community of Shi'a Arabs and Kurds [1]. By comparison, Baghdad province has an estimated population of 6.5 million and Niniwa province has roughly 2.6 million. However, these estimates don’t factor in the movement of more than one million Iraqis who have been displaced by the war since 2004. By many accounts, some of Baghdad’s Sunni Arab residents have fled 35 miles northeast to more homogenous areas including Baqubah (est. pop. 280,000), the capital of Diyala province.

Baqubah has emerged as the scene of some of the heaviest insurgent activity. It was just north of Baqubah on June 8, 2006 that a U.S. airstrike and subsequent raid killed the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By late 2006, Baqubah and much of Diyala province were reported to have come under the control of Sunni insurgents operating under the rubric of the “Islamic State of Iraq.” On January 3, 2007 the previous Iraqi government in Baquba was reported to have fallen, leaving the city in the hands of insurgents.

An Iraqi police commando guards a line of detained suspected insurgents in Baquba, on May 13, following a raid. Photo by AFP/Getty.Similar to what's taken place over the past eight months in Anbar, there are emerging reports of an Awakening in Diyala province. IraqSlogger reports:

An official in Diyala Province announced that more than 280 prominent personalities and tribal and military leaders have formed a “Baquba Salvation Council” to confront acts of violence in the province, focusing especially on combating the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq.”

Citing “resentment and anger among the tribal leaders at the conduct of these gangs,” the head of the new Baquba Salvation Council, Sheik 'Awad Najm al-Rabi'i, said the leaders were insistent on “declaring war against them and expelling them from the province and bringing security back to the citizens,” the agency writes.

The tribal leader added, “We are prepared to cooperate with the armed factions that maintain loyalty to a nonsectarian, non-partisan Iraq with the goal of rooting out these terrorist groups,” adding that the current situation in the province was “tragic” and saying that it was urgent that the government get involved to deliver the city from the control of “takfiris and tens of Arab and Afghan terrorists that hide in the agricultural areas,” al-Melaf reports.
Bill Roggio of the Roggio Report blogs:
Several tribes have banded together to form the Diyala Awakening and have vowed to battle al Qaeda. "Tribesman Sheikh Wameed al-Jabouri told al-Hayat that a number of tribes had signed a cooperation agreement to undertake this mission and to bring the city [of Baqubah] back to how 'it used to be,'" reports Deutsche Presse-Agentur. "The agreement could be considered 'a national charter' that proves their rejection of the actions of the terrorist groups, al-Jabouri said."
This second Awakening along with growing cooperation against al-Qaeda in Anbar might help to create a more hostile environment for terrorist groups to operate. The Salvation Councils of Anbar and Diyala may also lead to better representation in the provincial governments, reversing the Sunni Arab boycott of the January 2005 elections which most Sunni Arab leaders now acknowledge as a mistake.

Three years into their war, some were becoming introspective. In Amman, I was reunited with Sheik Saad Naif al-Hardan, leader of the Aithawi tribe in Ramadi since 1995. I first met him in his village of Albu Aitha in 2004, when he was closely involved with antioccupation forces, refusing even to tell me how many men his tribe had, viewing it as a military secret. Sheik Hardan said he had been arrested by the Americans as early as July 2003, along with 85 men from his tribe. Since I last saw him, Sheik Hardan had briefly served in the Iraqi government (as minister for provincial affairs). But he spent most of his time in Jordan. "All the leaders of the Anbar are outside of Iraq," he told me. "In the Anbar, America is killing and Al Qaeda is killing."

Like many Sunni leaders, Sheik Hardan had grown pensive about the past few years. "The Sunnis left the political process," he said. "This is our fault. Sunni scholars forbade political participation." But not all had changed. "We all support the muqawama sharifa," he said -- the "honorable resistance," by which he meant to distinguish resistance warriors from the many armed people who attack civilians. "And I am part of it," he said. When I raised my eyebrows, he added, "With words." I asked if there was still an honorable resistance given the civil war that Sunni and Shiite militias were engaged in. "It still exists," he said. "You don't see how many Americans are killed in the Anbar?"

One of Sheik Hardan's companions that day, who served as deputy chief of police for Anbar Province under the American occupation, had survived numerous assassination attempts. He blamed them on Al Qaeda, which he also believed blew up his house. "Al Qaeda is not cooperating with the Iraqi resistance," he said. "The real Iraqi resistance considers Al Qaeda an enemy."

Sheik Hardan's refugee counterparts in Damascus told a similar story. There I met one of the leaders of the Anbar that Sheik Hardan referred to when he told me they had all fled. Sheik Yassin was a weathered and frail man with a thick white scarf over his head. He fingered black beads as we spoke. He led a mosque in the Anbar city of Hit but fled a month before we met and left it in the care of his sons. Hit was deserted, he told me. "The situation there has become disastrous," he said. "They hit my son's house in an air strike and destroyed his house and killed my grandson. The people of Hit are caught between Americans on one side and Al Qaeda on the other side. And the police and army do not treat people properly."

He, too, recognized the strategic Sunni error made at the beginning of the American occupation. "That is the origin of the problem," he said. "They boycotted. If they had participated with all their weight, they would not have let the Shiite militias take over the government of Iraq." He blamed the Iraqi Sunni leadership for denouncing elections and threatening those who participated. "They made the wrong interpretation," he said. "Shiites wanted to prevent Sunnis from voting, and jihadists did as well. The jihadists fight the Americans on one side, and on the other side they destroy the community. The only solution is if the Americans stop the Iranian interference." Sheik Yassin did not flee Shiite militias. He fled from Al Qaeda. "Sunnis must choose between death or seeking refuge in the Anbar, Syria or Jordan," he said.

Another opponent of Al Qaeda was Sheik Mudhir al-Khirbit of Ramadi, a former leader of the Confederation of Iraqi Tribes. The Khirbits were favored by the former regime, and in March 2003, they told me, an American air strike on the sheik's home killed 18 family members, reason enough to seek vengeance. Sheik Khirbit sought shelter in Damascus but made frequent trips to Lebanon for medical treatment. The Iraqi government reportedly placed him on its new list of 41 most wanted, and in January, on a medical trip to Lebanon, he was arrested by that country's Internal Security Forces. His affairs are now being handled by his oldest son, Sattam, who is only 18 but, according to one Western diplomat, had his father's trust and went on missions for him. I found him in a Damascus apartment. He was in a gray suit and wearing pointy leather shoes and taking business calls from sheiks well into the night. Sattam had a few days of stubble on his tired face.

In 2004, when he was 15, Sattam and an uncle were arrested in an American military raid on their home. He called the initial Sunni boycott of Iraqi politics "a big mistake" that opened the door to Shiite domination. "Now it's too late," he said. "People here, and in Amman, feel like they lost." In Sattam's view, the only way to protect Sunnis was a Sunni state that would include Anbar Province, Mosul and Tikrit. But radicals like Al Qaeda were now in control of Anbar Province, and the resistance was finding it hard to resist Al Qaeda. "Al Qaeda kills Sunnis the most, and you don't know what they want," he said. His priority was to deal with Al Qaeda in the Anbar first, then reconcile with the Shiites and then work to end the occupation. "When Sunnis in Baghdad get arrested by the Americans they feel good because it's better than being arrested by Shiite militias." Despite this, he did not show hostility to the Shiites. "My father doesn't differentiate between Sunnis, Shiites and Christians," he said. "We don't have anything against Shiites. Shiites didn't kill 18 people from our family, the Americans did."


R.W. said...

We also must remember that their society values death and martyrdom very highly - similar to the very high regard we have for life in our culture. This is very hard for us to comprehend.

Emily Stivers said...

R.w. - be careful making generalizations about "their society." Our media likes to make it sound as though all Muslims want to be martyrs and would rather do so than live. However, it is in fact only an extreme minority of Jihadis who feel this way. Most Iraqis value their lives as much as we value ours.

It is, I'll grant you, very difficult to comprehend the Jihadi mindset. But understanding religious fanatacism in any culture is difficult.

Anonymous said...

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