IS fuels fears of sectarianism in Iraq

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 2 Nov 2021

Attacks by the Islamic State group are raising tensions in Iraq, with the group’s focus seemingly being to re-spark confessional strife in the country, writes Salah Nasrawi

IS fuels fears of sectarianism in Iraq
Mourners surround the caskets of victims of the attack on the village of Al-Rashad that killed at least 11 (photo: AFP)

Iraq’s eastern province of Diyala was a sleepy agricultural region growing the best of the country’s fruit and vegetables until the US-led invasion in 2003, when it was transformed into a thriving hub first for the anti-American resistance and then for Sunni opposition to the post-invasion Shia-dominated government of Iraq.

Diyala, which borders Iran in the east, is a mixed community where towns and villages across the province are populated by Sunni Arabs, Muslim Shias and ethnic Kurds and Turkomen. The presence of mixed populations across Diyala has prompted fears that the province could turn into a powder keg since claims to territory and spheres of influence overlap.

For nearly 20 years, Diyala has lived amid simmering communal tensions as the strategic province emerged as a base for the Sunni insurgency in Iraq and one of main strongholds of first Al-Qaeda and then for Islamic State (IS) group militants.

It remained a hotbed even after Iraq declared its war against the IS “caliphate” was over in December 2017, nearly three years after the group had taken over large swathes of the country. The group has built bases for its fighters in rural areas and in particular in remote citrus groves in the province.

Last week, Diyala seemed to be on the boil once more some five years after the IS “caliphate” was defeated, a reminder of the extremes of Iraq’s communal divisions and a warning that sectarian violence could easily be reignited.

On 26 October, scores of insurgents attacked the village of Al-Rashad in the Miqdaddiya district of Diyala, which is inhabited by members of the powerful Shia Al-Tamimi tribe. IS later claimed responsibility for the attack that killed at least 11 people and wounded dozens of others.

The attack took place as villagers assembled after hearing that negotiations with IS over the payment of ransoms to free two locals kidnapped by the group had broken down. According to several versions of the event, the militants opened fire on the villagers after the families of the victims allegedly refused to pay a ransom.

There is no way of knowing what exactly happened in the village with any certainty after the assault. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi said the crime would not go unpunished. “We stand firm on our pledge that we will continue to chase terrorists inside and outside Iraq,” he tweeted.

Al-Kadhimi also dispatched a delegation including the interior minister, the migration and displacement minister and National Security Adviser Qassim al-Araji to the area to indicate government support.

The government has sent special security forces to the area to try to stop any further escalation and to ensure peace in the volatile province and the non-recurrence of similar attacks.

But videos posted on social media showed that government representatives, security officials and militia leaders who travelled to Al-Rashad were booed by villagers who blamed the security forces for failing to protect them against IS attacks.

In a sign of what many believe will come after the IS assault, Shia tribesmen from the victims’ families attacked the nearby Sunni village of Nahr Al-Imam, accusing the residents of betrayal and providing the IS militants with sanctuary.

According to security officials who spoke to media outlets, some 3,000 tribesmen from the Al-Tamimi tribe took part in the raid after they surrounded the village from four sides to block escape into nearby groves and farms.

It is difficult to get a clear picture of what happened in the Nahr Al-Imam village on that day since the government has not disclosed details, but the script is all too familiar in Diyala, which has witnessed similar massacres before.

Some unverified footage surfaced later of the killing in the village of unarmed men, with their assailants also destroying houses and cars with bulldozers and setting fire to farms. The assailants can be heard in the footage shouting Shia slogans and praising the killings as an act of revenge.

Dozens of families left their houses in the village and took refuge in Baquba, Dilyala’s provincial capital. Some were able to find shelter in mosques, while the government provided emergency financial help.

Diyala, like many provinces in Iraq which the government calls “liberated areas” from IS, is overseen by a hodgepodge of government and security agencies with overlapping mandates, and this makes it highly unlikely for investigators to be able to solve the two events or find the suspects.

Iraq is currently witnessing its highest levels of violence since 2017, with the failure of the country’s multiple security forces to adequately deal with militants who have reorganised and shifted from direct confrontation with government troops to guerrilla warfare tactics.

Estimates vary as to how many IS fighters are left in Iraq. While Iraqi intelligence puts the number at 2,000 to 3,000, the Pentagon and the UN say that around 10,000 IS militants are still active across Iraq and Syria.

While the bulk of IS fighters have retreated to caves and hiding places and resurface only occasionally to hit security checkpoints, power stations, and other infrastructure, sleeper cells have remained at large to conduct attacks against “collaborators” or carry out suicide missions.

The group’s operations have been significantly on the rise, with its mobile squads carrying out small-scale attacks mostly by machine guns, grenades and snipers and targeting the security forces with low casualty rates.

Occasionally, it carries out more deadly sectarian attacks. The group claimed responsibility for a twin suicide attack on a busy market in Baghdad that left at least 36 people dead in January and a bombing in a Baghdad Shia neighbourhood that killed at least 30 people in July.

These attacks have come despite government claims that its intelligence services have been active in arresting IS leaders over the last few months. Among those who have been allegedly arrested is the deputy of the IS finance chief and other key group members.

Since the two massacres last week, the group has been launching indiscriminate rocket attacks against Shia-populated areas in the Diyala province in a show of defiance apparently aimed at forcing locals to flee their villages.    

The escalation has underlined the carefully laid-out sectarian agenda of the group, which aims to exact a toll on the political system in Iraq by exploiting the turmoil caused by the recent elections crisis and the sharp divides within Iraq’s ruling factions.

While IS views the Shias ideologically as heretics worthy of the death penalty and legitimate targets, the attacks are meant to ignite sectarian violence in Iraq and thus create more chaos that could be used as the background for the group to take over territory as it did in 2015.

The Miqdaddiya attacks and the tit-for-tat raid were the ugliest manifestations of everything that has gone wrong with Iraq’s war against IS since the country declared victory over the group in 2017, allowing the government to take back control of the Sunni provinces.   

The flare-up is an indictment of the post-IS territorial control in Iraq, and it has underscored the failure of power-brokers in Iraq to rebuild the country as a democratic, peaceful and prosperous state.   

Their stumbling has been translated into an abysmal security failure to truly defeat IS, avert its resurgence or restore stability and unity to the fractured nation. It has been coupled with Iraq’s wider malaise of endemic corruption, mismanagement and patronage and has caused the country to sink further into crisis.

The on-going elections crisis in Iraq and the intra-Shia rivalry also have implications for the dynamics of the country’s fragile political system, which is now unlikely to be fixed in the best interests of all Iraqis and has the potential for further political instability including sectarian conflicts.

While it is difficult to estimate how the IS presence will play out in future in Iraq, the group will doubtless continue to raise concerns that it seeks to stir up sectarian tensions and make an all-encompassing cause of renewed Shia-Sunni fissures.

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