A Problem Province
Diyala province is a mess. A change in strategy in Washington may not be enough to make things right again
BAQUBAH, IRAQ-U.S. military officials here have little trouble knowing when al Qaeda is exerting its influence in this city that was, once upon a time, the lush, orange-growing capital of the Mideast. Sometimes it's the subtle signs: Tomatoes and cucumbers start disappearing from the market, deemed too sexually suggestive, soldiers here say, by the Sunni fundamentalist terrorists. On other occasions, it's more overt: "Graffiti that says, 'Long live al Qaeda,' and stupid stuff like that," explains a U.S. military officer based here in what is now the capital of Diyala province. Mostly, though, the pressure has been bold and deadly: the heads of rival Shiites, stuffed in fruit crates, and phone calls designed to intimidate schoolteachers from teaching or tellers from opening banks.
For this, there has been retaliation. Shiite militias have been called into Baqubah at the behest of beleaguered Shiites, often arriving from strongholds such as Baghdad's Sadr City to provide protection against a Sunni insurgency that has driven thousands of Shiite families from their homes. "The Shiites get pushed around by Sunnis, and JAM shows up," says the officer. JAM, or Jaish al-Mahdi, is also known as the Mahdi Army militia, which is loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, a fiery Shiite cleric from Sadr City-and his gunmen arrive well supplied.
U.S. military officials here say the geography of Diyala is what the Fulda Gap was to West Germany: a perfect avenue for infiltration. The province shares a porous 170-mile-long border with Shiite-led Iran-a border that allows trafficked arms from the country to flow through Diyala and, often, down into Baghdad.
Today, more than six months after the U.S. military killed al Qaeda strongman Abu Musab Zarqawi in a dense palm grove outside Baqubah-and turned security responsibilities over to the Iraqi Army-Diyala is second only to Baghdad in per capita crime and kidnappings. Once known as the nation's melting pot, a "little Iraq" with a mix of Sunnis and Shiites, Diyala today lies on a violent fault line where residents tend to agree on just one thing: It is land worth fighting for. The area sits on a tributary of the Tigris and boasts dates and pomegranates, untapped oil fields, and a plentiful water supply.
Sunnis make up the majority of the population of Diyala-55 percent compared with 30 percent Shiites. Yet in a province of 1.5 million that was once a popular retirement spot for many former Sunni Baathists, Shiites compose the majority of seated politicians-this, thanks to a Sunni boycott of elections two years ago. For similar reasons, security forces also are majority Shiite.
Now, as jockeying for control of the province continues between Sunnis and Shiites, the local police chief and an army commander-both Shiites-stand accused of using hit squads and mass arrests to wage a campaign of intimidation against the region's Sunni majority. It's not a pretty picture. Corruption, growing ethnic suspicion, intimidation, wanton killing: What's happening here provides a sobering window on the larger problems bedeviling both Iraqi authorities and American troops as they try to create a secure environment in a fledgling democracy. Late last week, President Bush chose new commanders to lead the war in Iraq. This week, he will announce a revamped strategy, likely to include an increase in troops and an economic incentives package. But the challenges of Diyala serve as a stark warning of just how tough it's going to be to right what's wrong in this beleaguered nation- where security is precarious and, for elected officials here, all too fleeting.