BAQUBA — New military operations in Diyala province north of Baghdad have exacerbated a growing conflict between U.S.-backed Sunni fighters on the one hand and Iraqi army and police forces on the other.
The U.S. military commenced a large military operation Jan. 8 in the volatile Diyala province. Seven U.S. battalions led an offensive to push out fighters affiliated with ‘Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia’ from the area.
In the current operation, U.S., Iraqi, and local fighters have faced no serious resistance. U.S. military commanders admitted shortly after operations began that anti-occupation fighters were likely tipped off, and fled the area. But the operation has thrown up conflicts within the ranks.
“The military forces comprise the coalition forces, Iraqi police and army, and the popular forces (commonly called Kataib),” political analyst Akram Sabri told IPS in Baquba, capital of Diyala province. “It was found that the local forces are more truculent fighters who can always be relied on. This has made the coalition forces increasingly reliant upon these fighters to the extent that they will one day likely be joined to Iraqi police and army.”
The Kataib Sabri speaks of are what the U.S. military calls “concerned local citizens”. Most are former resistance fighters, now being paid 300 dollars a month to stop attacking occupation forces and to back them instead.
The groups, which the U.S. military claims are 82 percent Sunni, are viewed as a threat by the government in Baghdad led by U.S.-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The PM has said these groups will never become part of the government security forces. But while seen with suspicion at many places, these forces are also being welcomed in some.
Residents of Baquba, 40 km northeast of Baghdad, say the Kataib have brought a decrease in violence, and now enjoy a respect that the Iraqi army and police never have.
“The new prestige that Kataib enjoy has enraged the Iraqi police and army,” an officer in the directorate-general of police, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS. “In one operation in a village near Khalis city 15 km west of Baquba, the directorate-general of police contributed just 20 men, while the Kataib fighters numbered 450. This shows how the Americans now rely more on the Kataib than on us.”
Adding to the growing rift between the U.S.-backed fighters and government security forces is the increasing disgust with the mostly Shia-backed government in Baghdad.
“The coalition forces have to correct what they have done in bringing in such a sectarian government,” a Baquba resident said. “The existence of militants is the result of the bad performance of the government and the ruling council of Diyala in particular. Enemies are created by injustice and unfairness.
“Everything has been affected by the lack of security, and the only reason behind that is the occupation and its feeble government,” the resident said.
Residents remain leery of travelling outside of Baquba. Armed groups, often with unknown allegiance, control the roads.
Hded district, 10 km south of Baquba, is situated on the road to Baghdad. “The violence here has prevented people freely using the highway,” 43-year-old bus driver Muhsin Muhamed Kareem told IPS. Government forces have failed to provide security, he said.
Muqdadiya area, about 30 km north of Baquba, has become a danger spot on the road to Sulaimaniya province in the Kurdish north. Many want to go there for business because Kurdish areas have better security, but militiamen from the Shia Mehdi Army often target Sunni travellers around Muqdadiya.
“The military operations which started two months ago cleared out the militants but did not control the militia because they are the police and army,” a Muqdadiya resident said.
“A policeman at an official checkpoint in Muqdadiya asked a person, who was sitting beside me in my van, what his sect was,” a frequent traveller on the route said. “Passengers know that the police behaviour is sectarian.”
A resident of Aswad village, eight kilometres west of Baquba, told IPS that people have reason to support the U.S.-backed Sunni fighters rather than the government forces.
“The Iraqi army is hard-hearted with the people because they think that all the villagers are terrorists. People feel safer with the other forces.”
(*Ahmed, our correspondent in Iraq’s Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who has reported extensively from Iraq and the Middle East)