Sectarian Clashes Flare Up Again

BAQUBA — A military operation said to target al-Qaeda has ended up targeting Sunni Muslims instead, creating new sectarian tensions.

A U.S.-backed security operation launched last month has only targeted cities with majority Sunni populations such as Buhriz, Tahreer, Qatoon, Mafraq, and Hay in Diyala province, north of Baghdad. The operation has drawn more than 50,000 Iraqi soldiers.

The deputy governor of Diyala, Awf Rahoomi, has demanded in a public speech in Baquba that “the new security plan should also include Shia cities like Hwaider, Khirnabat and Abara.”

These Shia districts are strongholds of the Mehdi militia of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and of the Badr organisation (the militia of the ruling Shia party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.)

“The forces of the new security plan took all our weapons to the extent that we cannot fight al-Qaeda any more; we are impotent,” Mullah Shihab al-Safi, commander of the Popular Committees Fighters (the Sunni leadership of the U.S.-backed Awakening Group militias), said at a meeting of the Commitment Council established by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Safi said four members of the council who are leaders of the Awakening Group were among those arrested by government security forces.

Leaders of Awakening Councils from Qatoon district spoke of a similar crackdown by Iraqi forces. The Awakening groups are totally a 90,000 strong mostly Sunni militia whose members each receive 300 dollars a month from the U.S. military.

Soldiers from Battalion 36 of the Iraqi army, an elite counter-terrorism unit that is known by detractors as the “dirty squad”, stormed the Diyala provincial government building in Baquba at 1.30 am Aug. 19.

Witnesses told IPS that more than 50 soldiers stormed the compound and hauled council members from their beds. The governor’s secretary, Abbas Ali Hamood, was shot dead.

The special forces group entered with the permission of Captain Mohammed Sami al-Tamini, commander of the protection group for the building, but then handcuffed Tamini and the guards at the gate, and beat up deputy governor Awf Rahoomi before handcuffing him.

After this the special forces entered another building and arrested the head of the security committee in the ruling council and Sunni lawmaker of the Iraqi Islamic Party, Dr. Hussein al-Zubaidi. Other members of the ruling council in the building were beaten up and insulted, according to witnesses who spoke with IPS on condition of anonymity.

After the group left the building, fighting broke out between them and local security forces. One vehicle was destroyed and three local soldiers were wounded. Fighting continued through the night.

“These special forces work with the Americans,” Iraq’s Ministry of Defence spokesman Mohammed Askari told reporters the day of the raid. “They have goals, and they didn’t inform anyone else.”

The U.S. military denied involvement in the operation.

An Iraqi special forces unit also raided the home of the dean of Diyala University, Nazar Jabbar Khafaji, and detained him. Ismael Ibrahim, his driver, told reporters the troops took computers, two guns, and 5,000 dollars.

The Islamic Party has demanded an explanation from the prime minister about such assaults on Sunni Muslims. So far 684 people have been arrested. All of them are Sunni Muslims.

Sunni residents of Baquba, capital city of Diyala, say the new security plan is clearly sectarian. “No Shia VIP or layman has been arrested since the launch of the security plan,” local trader Qasim Abdullah told IPS.

Others blamed Shia militias, backed by the government in Baghdad. “We all know that Shia militias in Baquba are a source of instability,” Yasin Hamza, a teacher, told IPS. “Influential Shia members in the provincial office or in the ruling council were behind the bad security situation in this province. It cannot be that all of them are innocent.”

(*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).