Earlier this year, security services in Diyala arrested Fadhel al-Marsoumi, the leader of the new Mahdi movement known as “al-Rabbani Imam,” (God’s Imam), who claims to have “divine knowledge.” He divisively calls upon his followers not to obey any of the other Shiite clergymen.
Before his arrest, Marsoumi joined a list of many clerics running for provincial election that became known as the ‘preacher’s list’. Though he didn’t gain a seat on the Provincial Council, he was able to win 5000 votes most of which were his young followers. This number of followers created cause for concern amongst the security services.
Ridha Fayyad, a prominent Shiite cleric who is responsible for al-Sadr Martyr office in Diyala told Niqash:
“Friday preachers often attempt to promote a certain personal political agenda as though they have the divine right to do so.”
Om Salem, a local primary school teacher told Niquash how her 19 year old son Salem has recently gone to Mosque more frequently and his behaviour and opinions are starting to clearly change
“We are an intellectual family and we believe in the freedom of thinking, so we are very shocked how recently Salem’s is talking in a more ideologically extremist way”
In a clear reference to these fears, Diyala’s Provincial Council has banned the use of slogans and speeches that incite any kind of hatred during Ramadan. The Provincial Council emphasized that the role of clerics over this holy month should be to:
“spread and enhance a national discourse, renouncing violence, extremism and rifts among sects and ethnic groups that co-exist in the city.”
Maj. Ghalib Karkhi, a spokesman for Diyala’s Police Command, in a statement to Niqash said:
“some clerics and preachers have had a major role over the past three years in taking advantage of sectarian hatreds, mobilizing jihadists and supporting militant extremist groups by their Fridays and religious speeches and fatwas. Some of them have made mosques as their strongholds and as meeting places for extremist groups and detention areas. Others have used mosques to executed hundreds of innocent people."
A source close to the Security Services spoke about the controversial arrest and death of Sheikh Bashir al-Jourani of Ibn Hanbal Mosque in the Al-Tahreer area in January 2008. This was met by a Sunni backlash accusing the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) of killing the Sheikh.
But the source insisted that sensitivities between Sunnis and Shiites will not stop the security agencies from prosecuting Imams accused of inciting armed attacks on security and government institutions, regardless of their sectarian affiliation.
Brigadier Manaf al-Ubaidi, responsible for the Information Division of Diyala’s Operations Command told Niqash that:
“groups motivated by those such as Marsoumi are becoming a greater threat to the security of Diyala, taking advantage of the male and female adolescents, especially those suffering from bad economic conditions, recruiting them in armed groups or using them as suicide bombers.”
Ibrahim Pajelan the chairman of the Diyala Local Council is reported by Xinhua news agency as saying that there are up to 80,000 unemployed graduates in the province and this economic depression has a very negative effect on the local community and security for the province.
Diyala is estimated to have a population of around 1.4 million people. The Province has traditionally relied on an agricultural economic base of which 60% has been destroyed in the war over the last 3 years.
Brigadier Ubaidi pointed out that this phenomena of economic depression encouraging religious extremism is not limited to Diyala Province. Kirkuk Province, north of Diyala uncovered a suicide bombing cell called the "Birds of Paradise", linked to al-Qaeda, which was recruiting children under fourteen years of age to carry out suicide operations.
So, what situation does Diyala find itself in when this sacred holy month of Ramadan means the security services are to be on highest alert?