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Caught Between A Militia And Extremists:
Diyala Politics Get More Complicated In Election Run-Up

Mustafa Habib
Locals in Diyala, a province with a mixed population of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, are facing a complicated mixture of politicians to vote for, now that parties no longer adhere to their ethnic or sectarian group.
1.03.2018  |  Baghdad

The province of Diyala, with its mixed demographics, is doing the best in Iraq when it comes to the percentage of local voters who have updated their information on the national electoral roll. Around 70 percent of eligible voters have done this. Some would say it is an indicator of the intense political competition in the province, given the ethnic and sectarian mix there. However, others point out that there was a rumour doing the rounds that may have caused this.

“There were rumours that the government would stop paying the salaries of the employees who don’t have their cards for voting and that is why so many people went to get them so quickly,” explains Qassim al-Dahlaki, an employee of the local power department who lives in the town of Shahraban. “However, actually going to vote is another matter altogether. I have not yet decided who I will vote for or whether I will vote,” he told NIQASH. “There are a lot of parties competing here.”

Sunni Muslim parties have decided to run together in Diyala for the first time in ten years. 

In the past, the mixed demography of the local population, had seen politicians huddle together in groups that reflected their sectarian or ethnic makeup in order not to lose any voters – so there were Shiite Muslim and Kurdish groups, for instance, with the main Shiite Muslim parties based in southern Iraq banding together in Diyala, and the same for Iraqi Kurdish politicians.

And the province has a complicated and chequered past. During the Saddam Hussein regime it was known as the city of a million officers because of all the military personnel there. It was also a headquarters for the Iranian opposition. After the US invasion of 2003, it become a headquarters for Al Qaeda and since then has seen a lot of demographic change. Sunnis were in the majority and the Kurds never had a voice here.  

But this year things are going to be different.

A total of 359 candidates from 36 parties will compete in Diyala for the 14 seats in the Iraqi parliament allocated to the province. They will be trying to convince around a million voters to choose them.

The Iraqi Kurdish parties here will compete as five separate entities. In the past they would compete under one list to win the votes of Kurdish-majority areas like Khanaquin and Mandali. But this year, Iraqi Kurdistan’s biggest parties will run separately: The Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdish Communist party, an alliance featuring the Change movement and the Coalition for Democracy and Justice as well as another movement called New Generation, headed by a businessman strongly antipathetic towards the first two.

One local from Khanaquin found the whole thing confusing and dispiriting. “The Kurdish political parties have failed us and the federal government is ignoring us,” Imad Abdul Khaliq told NIQASH. “We only want security but there are still military tensions here between the Iraqi Kurdish military and the volunteer Shiite Muslim militias. The Kurdish politicians are divided and the Arab parties have Kurdish candidates.”


Diyala locals updating their electoral roll entry.


There have been demonstrations against the presence of the Shiite Muslim militias, who arrived just a few days after the ill-fated Kurdish referendum on independence.

Meanwhile the Sunni Muslim parties have decided to run together in Diyala for the first time in ten years. Despite the mixed population, Diyala is still a predominantly Sunni Muslim city.

Sunni Muslim politicians here are perturbed at the recent change in the long-lasting balance of power in Diyala. Since 2005 the governor of Diyala has been a Sunni Muslim, due to the majority of voters here being Sunni. The head of the provincial council was a Shiite Muslim, as this group was the next most populous, and the Kurdish got the next most important position.

However, in 2014, the extremist organisation known as the Islamic State took control of parts of Diyala after the Iraqi army and police force collapsed. The group were driven out fairly quickly afterwards by Shiite Muslim militias, formed of volunteers looking to defend the country. This gave the Shiites power over Sunni-majority areas and they lost no time in dismissing the governor, a Sunni, and appointing a Shiite, Muthana al-Tamimi, who is also a senior member of the Shiite-Muslim militia group, the Badr organization, that helped with the fighting.

Sunni politicians want to make up for the loss of the governor’s position by putting on a strong fight in the elections. Nonetheless they are still worried about the security situation in Diyala as many parts of the province are still under threat from the Islamic State, or IS, group. Additionally, Shiite militias are still deployed in some of the towns under threat - so they are caught between the two problems: pressure on locals from the resident militias or the danger of attacks from the IS group.

“The town is still in danger,” says Mohammed al-Ubaidi, a member of the town council in Atheem. “Residents are continuously on alert because the IS group moves around in Salahaddin province, the borders of which are not that far from us. The town is not ready for elections in May,” he added. “Most people are only thinking about how best to protect their homes and villages.”

As for the Shiite Muslim parties, where they once competed in elections together, now they are contesting in several separate alliances. That separation, that has seen the Sadrists and their affiliates, and the Badr organization and their affiliates, run separately from the other major Shiite Muslim parties, is simply another sign of the increasing divisions in Shiite Muslim politics in Iraq.  

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