Armed factions dissenting from al-Qaeda in Diyala, northeast of Baghdad, surprised many when they declared their transformation into a political faction under the name of the Reform Movement of Diyala.
The element of surprise lies in the fact that factions, or armed battalions, known as Popular Committees, which have controlled most of the cities of Ba’qouba since 2006 and which continue to prevent the return of 16,000 displaced Shiite families that fled their homes after the eruption of sectarian tensions, will likely create more political and sectarian conflicts by participating in the forthcoming provincial elections. This is especially the case as they intend to maintain their armed members deployed in Ba’qoubah.
Diyala, a hot spot city inhibited by Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, still suffers from sectarian tensions. Sunni militias, backed by U.S troops, maintain power over other sects especially after they strengthened their presence and rearmed themselves following the Mahdi army’s defeat in the city. Observers fear that the current situation might lead to a civil war with the failure of national reconciliation agreements and the deepening of sectarian divisions.
The Popular Committees, comprising the Thawrat al-Ishreen (the 1920 Revolution), Iraqi Hamas and Iraq’s Revolutionists Movement, which launched attacks against multinational forces during their alliance with al-Qaeda two years ago, are considered Iraq's most prominent armed groups. Their rebellion against al-Qaeda has raised the fears of security officials, despite the fact that they have declared war on their mother organization in Diayala. Diyala’s police chief, Major General Ghanim Quraishi, stressed that the American-backed popular committees are illegitimate groups and called for them to be dissolved. He has refused to integrate their members into the security forces claiming they remain infiltrated by al-Qaeda.
The commander of the popular committees in Diyala, Bashir al-Ubaidi, known as “Abu Talib”, told Niqash that “the option to transform into a political movement has become pressing and it is a legitimate right stated in the Iraqi Constitution.” He said that potential political alliances would depend on the extent to which political blocs agree with his movement’s positions.
The transformation of armed militias into political parties with sectarian affiliations would open the door for them to extend their influence under the umbrella of political legitimacy. A source in the security committee of the provincial council told Niqash that “the popular committees’ announcement of its transformation into a political faction and its intention to participate in the forthcoming elections will be followed by new announcements made by other movements such as that of Imam al-Rabbani who considers himself chosen by God to complete the prophet’s mission.” The source, who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons, added that “unfortunately such declarations receive U.S blessing and support and this is an intolerable mistake that should not be ignored or disregarded.”
Popular committees face accusations of murder, displacement and abduction. Abu Talib, leader of the committees, says these accusations are “irresponsible,” claiming that they are invoked in the context of conflicts between his organization and the police leadership and officials in the province. Abu Talib said he asked officials to allocate a portion of the amount spent on “illusionary projects” to the committees to enable them clean the city of terrorism.
Tribal leaders who oppose the influence of popular committees and their participation in elections claim that “the committees are infiltrated by al-Qaeda and that they are the main reason for the return of violence to the city.” Sheikh Muhammad Nasif al-Hathal, a prominent leader of al-Hathal tribe, said that “committee members are imposing royalties on families allowed to return to their regions, as well as on the owners of shops and factories.”
Shiites in the city feel that their presence is threatened by the committees advance into neighborhoods alongside U.S. campaigns against al-Sadr followers. In a statement to Niqash, Ahlam Abbas, a member of the provincial council, stressed that “these factions practice underground gangs’ methods by imposing royalties on families returning to the city, on shops and in areas under their control. Some of their members give information to al-Qaeda sleeper cells.”
According to Abu Basm Abdallah, the committees’ official spokesman, “the committees have established themselves as a national political faction, despite efforts to distort their image and attempts to charge them with terrorism.”