Diyala's Mass Graves Bring New Pain

Jasim Kareem, an elderly resident of Baqouba, casts a last glance over his son’s corpse lying in the city’s Public Hospital. His tears wet his white scarf and from the yard outside come the voices of lamenting women draped in black.

The announcement had arrived a few hours earlier: a mass grave of five bodies had been discovered south of Bahraz. Kareem’s missing son was among the bodies.

In total eight graves were discovered scattered around the village of Abu Tu’ama near Khalis city, containing dozens of bodies. Last year a grave with 133 bodies, as well as further five graves containing 25 bodies, was found in the same area. Numerous other mass graves have been reported to security forces.

Today, Diyala province is one of the last strongholds of the al-Qaeda-led insurgency. While violence has been tamed across much of the rest of the country, murders and kidnappings still occur here on a near daily basis.

Prior to 2003, Baqouba was considered a tolerant place due to the diverse ethnic and sectarian background of its inhabitants. Yet, when al-Qaeda moved into Diyala after its defeat in Anbar province, creating an Islamic district in 2006, inhabitants say that it provoked religious tensions between inhabitants.

As a result of al-Qaeda’s brutal ways hundreds of people in the province have been murdered. Now, as security forces gradually take control of the province, new graves are slowly being discovered bringing renewed pain to those who lost loved ones.

Looking at his son’s body, Kareem remained speechless. Occasionally he muttered a few words, cursing the perpetrators of his son’s murder or praising Allah and submitting himself to his sovereignty.

The official responsible for transporting the bodies uttered a hollow word of sympathy: “This man is relatively lucky; there are other bodies which are unidentifiable.”

According to the official, some of the bodies are so badly mutilated that they cannot be identified. Or, in the case of some female bodies found in agricultural dumpsites, “their parents refuse to identify the body for fear of the shame and disgrace they may face after their daughters’ kidnapping [and potential rape].”

A Diyala security source said that the majority of mass graves in the province were found during security operations carried out by Iraqi forces in 2007, especially when al-Qaeda militants controlled Sunni-majority areas in Buhraz, Katoun, al-Khalis, Hunarain and al-Atheem districts, noting that there are many "graves that have not yet been discovered.”

Manaf al-Shammari, another security officer, said that "some families are forced to search for their son’s grave themselves in areas that have witnessed violence and were previously controlled by al-Qaeda. People tend not to tell authorities that they have found graves especially after the order issued by the Human Rights office preventing the excavation of graves without official permission from competent authorities." he added.

The Association of Muslim Scholars, the religious reference for Sunni Iraqis which backs armed resistance against American troops, has condemned acts of murder, violence and kidnapping inflicted on the innocent inhabitants of Diyala. The Association’s spokesman, Muhammad Bashar al-Faydi, told Niqash that “the Association of Muslim Scholars does not have any links with al-Qaeda, and that it has denounced al-Qaeda’s cruel terrorist attacks.”

Families that lost loved ones, and particularly the family’s main income provider, today live in extremely difficult conditions. They want the government, which has not as yet helped them, to provide compensation. Hind, a 22 year old mother of two who lost her husband to an al-Qaeda attack one and a half years ago, said that “the only thing the government did was to burry my husband in the martyrs graveyard. Honoring people killed by al-Qaeda is not granting them titles but helping their families live a dignified life,” she said.

The fight against insurgent forces in Diyala is one of the country’s last security battles. While government and U.S forces are slowly rooting out the remaining al-Qaeda linked elements, families across the province continue to meet the pain of bereavement. But the province’s Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurdish inhabitants all say they want the government to liberate the remaining areas from the influence of al-Qaeda.