A journey into the 'Taliban republic' where the militias rule
By Patrick Cockburn in Diyala, north east Iraq
Independent" --- - Civil war is raging through
the Iraqi countryside. Sunni insurgents have largely taken
control of the province of Diyala, where local leaders believe
the insurgents are close to establishing a "Taliban republic".
Officials in the strategically important province - composed of
a mixture of Sunnis and Shias with a Kurdish minority - have no
doubt about what is happening. Lt-Col Ahmed Ahmed Nuri Hassan, a
weary-looking commander of the federal police, says: "Now there
is an ethnic civil war and it is getting worse every day."
At the moment, the Sunni seem to be winning.
As the violence has escalated over the past three years, it has
become too dangerous for journalists to find out what is
happening in the provinces outside the capital. The UN said last
week that 5,106 civilians were killed in Baghdad in July and
August and 1,493 in the provinces outside it.
Insurgents have cut the roads out of the capital to the west and
the north. As I travelled through the provinces of this vast,
war-torn country, despite keeping to the relatively calm tongue
of Kurdish territory that extends through the countryside almost
to Baghdad, I was keenly aware that it is not a place to make a
mistake in map reading.
We drove for a couple of hours beside the Diyala river which
rises in Iran's Zagros mountains and looks like a smaller
version of the Nile, a streak of vivid green vegetation running
through dun-coloured semi-desert. Then we turned abruptly east
before the road entered the strongly insurgent district of As-Sadiyah.
What could have happened if we had continued down the main road
was evident at Lt-Col Hassan's headquarters. In one corner of
the courtyard was the wreckage of a blue-and-white police
vehicle, ripped apart by a bomb. "Five policemen were killed in
it when it was blown up at an intersection in As-Sadiyah two
months ago," a policeman told us. "Only their commander survived
but both his legs were amputated."
In Diyala, it is possible to see the anguished break-up of Iraq
at ground level. Going by the accounts of police and government
officials in the province, the death toll outside Baghdad may be
far higher than previously reported. Ibrahim Hassan Bajalan, the
head of Diyala's provincial council - who had survived an
attempt to assassinate him in Baquba with a mortar attack the
previous day - says he believed that "on average, 100 people are
being killed in Diyala every week."
The latest were three civilians shot dead yesterday by
unidentified assailants. Behind them, as the killers sped away
in their car through the streets of Baquba, the families of the
dead were left to grieve, falling to their knees and throwing
their arms open to the sky in despair.
Many of those who die disappear for ever, thrown into the Diyala
river or buried in date palm groves and fruit orchards. The
reason for their killings can be spurious, and people have
become careful to avoid incurring the wrath of local Sunni
insurgents who control much of the province according to strict
Islamic laws. "They have even banned the sale of cigarettes in
the provincial capital, Baquba, and kill anybody selling
cigarettes," Mr Bajalan said. "I have to bring in cigarettes
from other places to give them to council members who are
In a house in Khanaqin, a Kurdish enclave in the north-east of
the province, Nazar Ali Mirza, a sorrowful-looking middle-aged
woman, described how she had fled too late from Muqdadiyah, the
Sunni-dominated town of 200,000 people where she was born. She
was caught by surprise when death squads began to target Kurds
and Shias in her neighbourhood. Her eldest son, Khalil Mohammed
Ahmed, a taxi driver, went out to collect a washing machine in
March and never came back. She is beginning to assume he is dead
but no body was discovered.
"Kurds and Shias were being driven out of our district," she
said. "Men in black masks came to me and said they would kill my
sons, even if they flew up into the sky, unless I moved away."
One of her other sons was a policeman permanently disabled in a
Mrs Mirza and her family are among 300,000 Iraqis forced to flee
their homes since the beginning of the year. Everywhere,
minorities frightened for their lives are on the move. "Nobody
waits any longer to find out if a threat is real," says Mamosta
Mohsin, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in
Khanaqin which, in effect, runs the town. "Even if the threat is
organised by two children, people will run." Most often, the
threat is real. Lt-Col Hassan has a collection of files in which
the names of the latest refugees are registered. Most of them
are Kurds coming from Baghdad, Ramadi, Baquba and the rest of
He hands over a piece of paper showing how the number of refugee
families arriving in this small town had risen from 29 in
January to 318 in June. It was still 239 in August.
Lt-Col Hassan says that neither Sunni nor Shia are particularly
well organised: "It is not like Lebanon, because most of the
killing is done by local or tribal militias." The problem is not
that the insurgents are strong but that the government forces
are so weak. A division of 7,000 government soldiers is in
Diyala, he said, "but they are all Shias and only arrest
Mr Bajalan confirms that the army is weak in Diyala, saying most
of it is tied down at checkpoints. He reckons there is one
soldier for every 50 square kilometres of the province. "The
soldiers are badly armed," he says.
"They just have Kalashnikovs while the terrorists have rocket
launchers and heavy machine guns. When they attack, they always
kill 10 or 15 army or police."
The Americans do have a base near Baquba, and act in a
supportive role when they are asked to. "That isn't much use
against guerrillas," says Mr Bajalan. "They've all gone home by
the time the Americans arrive."
Baghdad announced signal successes around Baquba last week,
including the capture of leaders of two Sunni insurgent groups.
But nobody in Diyala had heard about it, and, without exception,
they expected the civil war to grow in intensity.
The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq
will be published by Verso on 9 October
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