A bout of violence in the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala has prompted fears of a resurgence of the kind of sectarian conflict that once wracked the country.
On April 26, a double bombing hit a cafe owned by a Shia man in the village of Abu Garma in northern Diyala, killing ten people and wounding 17 others, all of them Shia Arabs.
The Islamic State of Iraq, an Islamic group regarded as a branch of al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility in a statement posted on a jihadist website, saying it was revenge for the “Sunni prisoners and detainees” held in government jails.
In the early hours of the following day, gunmen with silenced weapons broke into a 45-year-old Sunni widow's house in the same village and shot her dead, together with her three children aged between ten and 15.
Dlir Hasan, deputy head of Diyala’s security committee, told IWPR he believed al-Qaeda carried out both attacks in a deliberate attempt to stir up conflict. Its tactic was, he said, to “target both sects in the province and make Sunni and Shia feel they’re under attack from each other”.
Like many parts of this province, Abu Garma, north of the provincial centre Baquba, is a mixed community. The village centre is mainly populated by Sunni Arabs and more outlying parts by Shia. The presence of similarly mixed populations across Diyala has prompted fears that sectarian violence could easily spread from one place to another.
Amir al-Khuzaei, a Shia member of Diyala’s local government, told IWPR that provincial officials were concerned about the violence.
“These incidents in Abu Garma show us that sectarian violence might return, and that if it did return, it could spread in brutal fashion,” he said. “Developments like this could lead to more sectarian attacks in this province.”
Referring to al-Qaeda affiliated gunmen, al-Khuzaei added, “They killed Shia one day and then Sunni the next, in order to prove that both sects are killing one another.”
Adnan Zaidan, a Sunni member of Diyala’s local government, said central government should have done more to preempt the attacks.
“It is the responsibility of government to look after and protect its citizens,” he said. “The government should do its job properly. Securing people is its responsibility.”
Officials in Baghdad dismissed such claims, arguing that it was not possible to root out terrorism completely.
Deputy government spokesman Tahsin al-Sheikhli told IWPR that breaches of security “occur from time to time, in different places in the country”. They were, he said, “the terrorists’ way of flexing their muscles and demonstrating their presence”.
At national level, relations between Iraq’s Shia and Sunni leaders have become strained since American troops withdrew in December 2011, and some observers blamed this for exaggerating communal differences.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sought the removal of his Sunni deputy, Saleh al-Mutlaq, and an arrest warrant was issued for Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges.
Zaid Abdullah, a political analyst based in Diyala, said, “When ordinary citizens watch their leaders attacking each other, they do the same thing, but in their own way. This is why we witness violence on the streets.
“I urge our politicians to be cautious in their statements. People don’t just listen, they react as well.”
During late 2006, much of Diyala came under the control of insurgent groups. Thousands of locals were killed and many others displaced.
Tensions in the province have fallen markedly in the last two years, but local residents told IWPR the conflict left behind a legacy of mistrust and fear that still persists.
Ahmed Alwan, a 28-year-old taxi driver in Diyala, said that he did not personally care which faith group his passengers belonged to, but that as a Shia Muslim, he was still afraid to drive through Sunni neighbourhoods.
“When I go to one of those areas, I prepare myself for death,” he added.
Adnan al-Mashhadani, a 34-year-old unemployed man in Baquba, said he had been turned down for a job in a shop when his prospective employer found out he was Sunni.
“The owner of the store was Shia, so he refused to hire me when he discovered my faith, even though when he met me he had seemed impressed,” al-Mashhadani said. “The biggest loser here is the citizen – whether he’s Sunni or Shia.”
The name of the Diyala-based reporter has been withheld for security reasons. Khalid Waleed, an IWPR-trained freelance journalist, contributed reporting.