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Story Publication logo October 28, 2011

Letter from Iraq: As the US Military Withdraws, Sectarian Tensions Continue to Smolder


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It has been more than eight years since the U.S. invaded Iraq and now the mission is coming to a...

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Iraqis in Baghdad attend the funeral of the victim of a bombing the previous day. Image by David Enders. Iraq, 2011.

Situated between Baghdad and the Iranian border, Diyala is a microcosm of Iraq in all its volatility. A mix of Sunni and Shiite Arabs as well as Kurds, Diyala was claimed as the capital of Al Qaeda in Iraq's proposed caliphate, and it remains a locus of AQI operations. There is oil wealth in the northern part of the province, and as one moves south, the landscape gives way to date palms and lush orange groves along the Diyala River.

Baquba, the provincial seat, is only thirty-five miles northeast of Baghdad, but the last time I was there was in 2005, on an embed with the US military. It was a dangerous place then, and it still is. On the eve of the US military withdrawal, now apparently a foregone conclusion, Diyala remains under lockdown. The main street, where the provincial council and police station sit, is closed to civilian automobiles. The situation is better than it was at the height of the civil war, between 2006 and 2008, but attacks and explosions are still commonplace here, as they are in Baghdad and other parts of the country, and checkpoints control exit and entry from most neighborhoods.

The US military withdrew from all but one base around Baquba in early October, but it has been a long time since the American military was the most serious danger to average Iraqis. However, few Iraqis I spoke to wanted US forces to remain; they are still seen as a primary reason for the beginning of the violence, and are still blamed by all sides for fanning sectarian flames. The country, as it has since the beginning of the US invasion, overwhelmingly rejects the idea of foreign occupation, even as civil conflict still smolders.

"There have been six bombs here in the past three weeks," Rashid Hussein Ali told me as he stood next to a Shiite shrine on the road between downtown Baquba and Buhriz, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood. The shrine has been the target of multiple bombings since the civil war began.

As Ali spoke, an explosion rumbled nearby. He pointed to the graveyard behind the shrine, where some families were picnicking. "We need someone to protect this open area," he said. Clearly, he didn't have much faith in the police checkpoint that we could see within shouting distance.

From the very beginning of the US occupation, the "Baghdad Belt" was an area of concern to the US military. The demographically mixed cities and villages surrounding the nation's capital saw some of the worst violence of the past eight years, and they continue to pose problems for the Iraqi government. In Anbar province, to the west of Baghdad, it was possible for me on this trip to travel and operate safely in Falluja—site of the most sustained guerrilla resistance to the United States. But in Abu Ghraib, just fifteen minutes west of the capital, it was too dangerous for me to get out of the car. There, Sunni sheiks accuse Iraqi army units answering directly to the prime minister's office of continuing the cycle of displacement that had begun under Saddam Hussein, only in reverse: they say the Shiite-dominated government of Nouri Kamal al-Maliki has been driving Sunni families out of Abu Ghraib in recent months in an effort to permanently change the area's demographics.

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But Sunni versus Shiite is not the only fissure in Iraq.

Back in Diyala, only sixty miles separate Baquba and Khanaqin, to the northeast, but the drive takes more than two hours. There are dozens of checkpoints, some of them less than 500 yards apart. A few miles outside Khanaqin, Iraqi flags disappear, and the checkpoints are manned by pesh merga (Kurdish militiamen).

At the last checkpoint before Khanaqin, Kanan Aziz, a uniformed member of the Asaish, Kurdistan's formal security service, listed in rapid fire the reasons Khanaqin is and, he contends, will remain a Kurdish city, despite Saddam Hussein's campaigns of forced displacement and repopulation with Arab families in the 1980s.

"There is the cemetery," Aziz said. "There are more than 5,000 Kurdish graves, some of them are more than 1,000 years old. There are other graves, but most of them are Kurdish. The second reason is that all the names of the surrounding villages are Kurdish, and the names of the tribes are Kurdish. Finally, there is a census from 1957, which is in Baghdad, that proves the area was mostly Kurdish."

Before the Iraqi army was deployed along the road between Baquba and Khanaqin in 2008, the pesh merga were in charge, and they drove many Arabs from their homes. In mid-October Prime Minister Maliki ordered all the Kurdish flags to be taken down in Khanaqin. Instead, they proliferated. A few days later, Kurds from other parts of northern Iraq's autonomous Kurdish provinces came to Khanaqin to show their support.

"I am paid by the Iraqi government, but I work for Kurdistan," said a police officer who gave us a short tour of this city of about 45,000, which is not too far from the Iranian border.

The US military still maintains a joint base with the Iraqi army along the road near the village of Nawdoman, just south of Khanaqin. Presumably this is one of the last places from which they will withdraw.

Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which sets out the steps for resolving the status of disputed areas, expired on Dec. 31, 2007. Meanwhile, facts on the ground are telling.

"In Saddam's time, they tried to 'Arabize,' " Salam Khalil Alwan told me over lunch at a restaurant in Baquba. "Now it is mostly the Kurds kicking the Arabs out." Alwan was displaced in 2003 from Jalula, a disputed town south of Khanaqin.

Alwan wrote off the entire government as corrupt. "Even if my father were running in an election, I wouldn't vote for him," he said. He railed against the police, accusing them of targeting Sunnis and forcing families to pay ransoms for the release of prisoners even after there is judicial approval of their release.

On the issue of the US withdrawal, Alwan was sanguine. The American occupation has already been supplanted by an Iranian one, he claimed, referring to Iran's support for the Shiite parties that now control the Iraqi government. "Just wait until the US withdraws; you will see what we will do to Iran," he vowed. I didn't have to ask Alwan if he was Sunni or Shiite. His talking points gave that away.

A few minutes later, in a different part of town, I sat with Bashar, a Shiite medical student, who answered my questions about the situation in Baquba quite differently. The victors, it seems, are less bitter. Bashar said, "I think Nouri al-Maliki has made some changes and taken some good decisions. The police and the army here deal well with the people." Asked if he would be safe traveling to the still-restive Sunni neighborhood of Buhriz, Bashar answered with a question. "Why would I go to Buhriz?"

Bashar lives in the neighborhood of Hay al Mustafa, where a large picture of Imam Ali, a Shiite saint, marks the entrance, leaving no question about who lives there. Both Sunni and Shia agree that many who fled the violence have returned to Diyala, but I also found families in Baghdad who were still too afraid to come back. According to the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, slightly less than half of the roughly 2.5 million people displaced inside Iraq have returned to their former homes. But the new order in Baquba is clear: the Shiites are in charge now.

Before leaving Baquba, I stopped in Kharnabat, a largely Shiite village on the city's periphery. When I was there with the US military, back in 2005, the Americans had gone house to house in a massive cordon-and-search operation in response to an attack on an Iraqi police station. Apparently not realizing Kharnabat's demographics and that the police station's attackers were likely Sunni extremists sending a message to the Shiite-dominated government, the operation quickly fell apart.

Like the other neighborhoods in Baquba, a single checkpoint now controls all exit and entry to Kharnabat, and the road between Baquba and the village was still marked with the evidence of war; it had once been controlled by Al Qaeda in Iraq, which had cut the village's residents off from downtown. One of the walls in the main square was still pockmarked from the shrapnel of a suicide bombing in 2008 that had killed twenty-five people, mostly children.

As I sat drinking tea at dusk with the village's mukhtar (a sort of informal mayor), the men there offered their thoughts, without prompting, on how the US occupation would be remembered.

"We were actually discussing this last night," the mukhtar said. "Thank god we are getting rid of the Americans. Everybody wants them out. Iraq has hosted many occupiers, and all of them have left. We have cemeteries for the Englishmen and the Turks. The Americans left no cemeteries. They will be easy to forget."





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