Ever since the Coalition invasion of 2003, Iraq’s Diyala province has seen massive demographic changes.
Located northeast of the capital city of Bagdad along the border with Iran, the province is something of a small scale model of the demographic fluctuations that have been going on in Iraq as a whole since that conflict and those that have followed.
Traditionally, it has been known for its relatively balanced religious and ethnic diversity between the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, as well as other religious minorities such as Iraqi Turkmen. But years of conflict, most recently the fight to drive out the extremist Islamic State group, have left different ethnicities competing for control of parts of the province.
In the process, Iraq’s Shiite Muslim volunteer militias have occupied certain areas, while Iraqi Kurdistan’s Peshmerga forces have occupied others. The latter have paved the way for the return of Kurds who have been displaced over the years. And now, the Kurdistan Regional Government to the north wants to annex these disputed parts of the Diyala province.
The issue is one of the most pressing problems between Baghdad and the quasi-independent Kurdish government in Erbil, and so far neither side has presented a satisfactory compromise to suit the parties involved, be they Arab, Kurdish or Turkmen.
Critics say that the Kurds are using the security crisis to try and achieve their goal of independence from Baghdad. But the Kurds say they have a right to these areas, and hope to annex them to the Kurdistan Region as part of the implementation of the long-delayed Article 140 of the Constitution.
The planned measure includes a series of steps that are supposed culminate in a referendum to determine who the country’s disputed areas belong to, including land that Iraqi Kurdistan wants to claim. Among the most hotly debated areas is the much-contested province of Kirkuk, which Baghdad wants to keep along with some other areas in question.
Although some of the Sunni political blocs and leaders in the Iraqi capital are against Kurdish government and military interventions around the Diyala province, many of the inhabitants are said to support the idea of joining the Kurdistan Region. They hope for new jobs and improvements to the deteriorating living conditions.
“Citizens throughout Diyala want to enjoy life and they want services, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has proven it can provide these basic needs successfully over the past 12 years,” Abdullah Hassan, a member of the district council of Khanaqin, a town near the near the Iranian border, told NIQASH.
Just over 100 kilometers south of there in the town of Mandali, deputy head of the local council, Raed Khalil, agreed that people in his community want to be annexed to Iraqi Kurdistan. “The negligence and practice of marginalization by the old regime and the resulting demographic changes have all made the people demand the annexation of their area to the Kurdistan Region,” he said, adding that this is true even though the area is currently home to just as many Arabs as Kurds.
Positive social relations and intermarriage between the two groups have united people in the creation in recent years, Khalil said.
Nevertheless, the dispute over who will run Diyala’s disputed areas is likely to continue for years to come, as Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish politicians jockey for influence and leverage in both regional and national politics.