Last week a joint force composed of the Iraqi army and members of Iraq’s volunteer militias arrived in the province of Diyala with a specific mission: To arrest members of possible sleeper cells propagated by the extremist group known as the Islamic State.
Even though the Islamic State, or IS, group was supposedly pushed out of Diyala two years ago, there are still grave fears that the extremists have managed to set up secret cells in the province, which will wreak havoc sooner or later.
“The operation, undertaken by the Tigris Command of the army and Brigade 24 of the militias, targeted the Wadi al-Thalab, Imam Wees and Naft Khana districts in Diyala,” explained Mazen al-Tamimi, one of the senior members of the militias. “The aim was to find terrorists, and also the cells set up by terrorists.”
The organisation has lost its power to control whole cities so it will resort to sudden terrorist attacks. And Diyala has the right environment in which the extremists can hide.
A recent video made by the IS group shows members threatening neighbouring Iran, a Shiite Muslim theocracy. The IS group are Sunni Muslim extremists and they believe that Shiite Muslims are as good as unbelievers. In the video, which was made in Diyala, the IS members fire their guns at pictures of Iranian clerics.
Some locals, surprised that such a film could be made in an area supposedly free of extremists, say that the video was actually made by Iran, in a kind of “false flag” operation. However there is no doubt that attacks against the Iraqi security forces in the province have been increasing. According to an officer in Iraq’s intelligence services, it is quite possible that the IS group has returned to Diyala and is reuniting with former allies, ones they had previously left behind, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq and Sunni extremist groups committed to what they see as holy war.
“We have confirmed that Arab and foreign fighters are returning to Diyala after they made it out of Mosul,” the officer, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to make comments on the matter, told NIQASH. “Their mission is to prepare the ground for the return of IS to Diyala.”
“We knew this would happen,” he continued. “The organisation has lost its power to control whole cities so it will resort to sudden terrorist attacks. And Diyala has the right agricultural and rural environment in which the extremists can hide.”
The Iraqi intelligence services believe that senior members of the group have come back to Diyala to try and negotiate new bonds with former allies, even though there is still tension between the various groups because of the fact that, when the IS group took over Mosul in northern Iraq, it ruthlessly forced all other groups to pledge allegiance.
The return to Diyala makes sense historically. Diyala was the first capital for extremist organisations in Iraq. The first extremist organisation was created here in 2004, after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Sunni leader, Saddam Hussein.
A still from the video the IS group made in Diyala.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, notorious for forming the first wing of Al Qaeda in Iraq, announced the organisation from Diyala and his fighters trained and rested in the rural hinterlands of the province, before leaving to undertake operations in other parts of Iraq. Al-Zarqawi was killed in Diyala by a US air strike in 2006.
This year’s dangers lie in a series of agricultural villages in what is known as the Sansal area, which stretches from Muqdadiya city to the outskirts of a town called Khales – where al-Zarqawi was killed – to Baquba, the headquarters of the provincial government. From these villages, the extremists are launching their attacks on the Iraqi army, the militias and the various checkpoints.
Most of the villages are deserted, residents having left because of fear of the IS group as well as concerns that the militias would think they were IS themselves and accuse of them of collaborating with the extremists.
“It is actually dangerous to keep dozens of villages near Muqdadiya empty because the terrorists make use of this and hide there,” says Haqi al-Jibour, a member of Diyala’s provincial council. “It is increasingly important that all of the people from these villages – around 1,700 families – return and make peace.”
That is going to be difficult to achieve. Some locals believe that the IS group’s new tactic is to try and inflame pre-existing sectarian tensions, that have worsened over the past two years of Iraq’s security crisis.
“The IS group is no longer capable of launching big attacks,” says Bassem al-Azzawi , a member of Diyala’s police. “That’s why it is now playing the sectarian game in Diyala,” he told NIQASH in a telephoned interview.
A number of recent events seem to confirm al-Azzawi’s explanation. An attack on a checkpoint outside the Shiite Muslim-majority area of Wajihiyah resulted in troops shelling the Sunni Muslim-majority area around Muqdadiya.
Two weeks ago, Raad al-Dahlaki, a Sunni Muslim MP, told local media that there had been kidnappings and murders in Diyala that appeared to have a sectarian motive.
All of these developments have resulted in meetings of high ranking politicians in Baghdad, that included ministers for national security and the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi. An official statement released after the meeting said that the government was considering a number of measures to maintain and improve security in Diyala.
And there is likely more to come, as the Iraqi government begins to realise that the IS group will continue to present new challenges, no matter where they are.