Iraq's Diyala region could be spark for civil war
BAGHDAD, June 7: If there is one place that suggests Iraq's sects and ethnic groups can't live together, it is blood-stained Diyala Province.
The large, mixed region northeast of Baghdad has seen some of the worst carnage since a US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime in 2003.
But recent violence has assumed a new intensity, fueling fears Iraq could move dangerously close to civil war unless new Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led government finds a way to cool sectarian passions.
That will be especially difficult in Diyala, where recent targeted attacks striking at the heart of families, tribes and communities seem to be stirring more sectarian emotions now than suicide bombings focused on killing in large numbers.
Nine severed heads were found in cardboard crates yesterday in Diyala's capital Baquba. The gruesome discovery came after police found the severed heads of seven cousins and a Sunni mosque Imam on Saturday.
''As you can see that it is the second time we find heads of bodies. It is a cowardly act aiming at harming people in the province,'' Diyala Governor Ra'ad Rasheed told Reuters.
''There are also well-equipped, armed groups that force people to leave houses and spread violence. The province has limited capabilities for dealing with it.'' Diyala has seen al Qaeda militants and insurgents blow themselves up or mount bold raids on police stations.
But the cut-off heads and attacks like the one on Sunday in which gunmen dragged 24 people out of their cars, including teenage students, and shot them dead are focusing attention on more gruesome sectarian bloodshed.
There are clear reasons why Diyala is a prized target for insurgents, including al Qaeda militants Iraqi and US officials say are bent on triggering open sectarian civil war.
It is a congested mix of sects and ethnic groups, including Shi'ite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds, Turkmen, Shi'ite Turkmen and Shi'ite Kurds, as well other minorities.
Shi'ites mostly inhabit Diyala cities, which are surrounded by a predominantly Sunni Arab countryside, a powderkeg formula for the two main players in Iraq's growing communal conflict. Diyala's communities all have close family and tribal ties to strategic Baghdad so beheadings, shootings, bombings and kidnappings there reverberate in the capital.
''Diyala is a potent mix of sects, ethnic groups and tribes.
Anytime al Qaeda attacks or there is a sectarian killing and people's heads are cut off, it has a direct impact on Baghdad,'' said Hazim al-Nuaimy, a Baghdad University professor.
''When the Americans invaded Iraq they tried to shock and awe to scare their enemy. Now Iraqis are shocking and aweing each other. It is especially dangerous in Diyala.'' It is hard to tell whether sectarian killings like those now common in Diyala are claiming more lives than insurgent action. But it is clear the killings aid al Qaeda's campaign to engineer a broader conflict.
Details of why the eight people whose heads were found along a road near Baquba on Saturday met their fate provide chilling evidence about the level of sectarian hatred in Diyala.
Small pieces of notepaper were left near the heads, which were carried in banana crates by ambulance workers.
Sunni preacher Abdulazeez Hameed al-Mashhadani's killers said they had beheaded him for killing four Shi'ite physicians. Relatives of the seven beheaded cousins said they were lured to a Shi'ite-run hospital and then killed.
Residents of Diyala and other parts of Iraq wonder how the carnage can ever end when gunmen often show up in police uniforms just before they kidnap or kill, or both.
There is no way, they say, of telling who is who in the chaos.