Spiking violence strains sectarian ties in Iraqi province

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Hussein Maytham and his family were driving past the palm tree grove near their home after a quiet evening shopping for toys for his younger cousins when their car hit a bomb planted on the moon-lit road.

“I only remember the explosion,” Maytham, 16, said weakly from his hospital bed, his pale arms speckled brown by shrapnel.

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The attack took place earlier this month in the Shia-majority village of Hazanieh. The force of the blast hurled the teenager out of the vehicle, but his family – his parents, an aunt and three cousins - perished in the fiery carnage. Residents say gunmen hidden nearby in irrigation canals opened fire, killing two others.

This is the latest in a series of attacks witnessed over the last month in the central Iraqi province of Diyala, located north and east of Baghdad. Security officials say at least 19 civilians have been killed by unidentified assailants, including in two targeted attacks.

The violence is pitting communities against each other in the ethnically and religiously diverse province. It also raises questions whether the relative calm and stability that has prevailed in much of Iraq in the years since the defeat of the extremist group ISIS can be sustained.

Iraq as a whole has moved on from the conditions that enabled the rise of ISIS and the large-scale bloody sectarian violence that erupted after the US-led invasion 20 years ago, according to Mohanad Adnan, a political analyst and partner at the Roya Development Group.

But some parts of the country, including Diyala, remain tense, with occasional waves of violence reopening old wounds. “There are a few villages, especially in Diyala, where they have not overcome what happened in the past,” said Adnan.

Officials, residents, and analysts say at least one instance of violence in Diyala appears to be a sectarian reprisal by Shias against Sunnis over an ISIS-claimed attack. But they say other killings were carried out by Shias against Shias, as rival militias and their tribal and political allies that control the province struggle over influence and lucrative racketeering networks.

Diyala, bordering both Iran and Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, is a prime conduit for smuggling, including drugs.

The Iranian-backed Badr Organization, a state-sanctioned militia within the Popular Mobilization Forces with a political wing, wrested control of the province from ISIS in 2015. Since then, it has asserted its dominance over several Shia political parties and their associated paramilitaries, as well as Sunni groups.

Although most Sunni residents displaced during the war against ISIS have returned to the province, they say they are often viewed with suspicion by authorities and neighbors due to their perceived affiliation with the extremists. When remnants of the group stage attacks on civilians or security forces, it often prompts a spiral of retaliatory attacks.

In the Sunni village of Jalaylah, nine people, including women and children, were killed in a gruesome attack in late February, two months after they were blamed for allowing an ISIS attack on a neighboring village, according to security officials.

The attackers moved openly through the area, said villager Awadh al-Azzawi. “They didn’t wear masks. Their faces were clear,” he said.

Residents accuse members of the nearby Shia village Albu Bali, where ISIS killed nine in December, of carrying out the attack in revenge. They say the perpetrators belong to local militias using weapons given to them by the state. Security officials affiliated with the armed groups declined to comment.

Banners calling for the blood of the attackers are hoisted on the walls of Jalaylah.

Maytham’s relatives less readily voice their suspicions of who killed their family members, who were Shia.

“Only God can be certain who is behind this attack,” said Sheikh Mustaf, the teenager’s grandfather, in his reception hall surrounded by guests offering their condolences for the eight killed in the March 3 attack, only describing the attackers as “terrorists.”

A local leader of the Bani Tamim, one of the most prominent Shia-majority tribes in Diyala, Sheikh Mustaf has called for calm. But tribe members say their weapons are at the ready if authorities do not bring the assailants to justice.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani visited Diyala days after the attack, sending military reinforcements to the area. Several have been arrested on terrorism charges and caches of weapons, including mortars, missiles, and ammunition, have been uncovered, according to the security media cell.

“We blame the security forces and the government because they have to secure the area. It’s their responsibility,” said Sheikh Maher, another relative of the deceased and prominent member of the tribe. He blamed “foreign hands” that he said “are trying to return our province back to the days of sectarianism and chaos.”

A provincial security official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media, said, “what is happening in Diyala is not only terrorism” – a term generally used for attacks by Sunni militant groups like ISIS – “but also a struggle for influence between armed factions linked to political blocs.”

Experts say internal rifts are emerging within the Bani Tamim clan, who are split in their support among the competing forces of the Badr Organization, the movement of influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Iranian-affiliated paramilitary group Asaib Ahl Al-Haq.

“There is a struggle within the tribe in order to impose power and to obtain important positions in Diyala, positions in the Diyala government, and security positions,” the official said.

Iraq analyst Tamer Badawi, a doctoral researcher at the University of Kent, said armed groups are also carrying out attacks to destabilize the area and undermine a crackdown launched by the government against smuggling networks that they have operated for years.

“Now, after cracking down on smuggling, crime is increasing, namely murder and kidnapping for the sake of money,” said the security official.

Residents of Diyala say regardless of the cause of the attack, they feel unsafe and blame Iraqi authorities for letting the attacks happen. “This is terrorism. It’s not about tribes, or sectarianism, it’s terrorism,” said Azzawi.

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