Iraqi Shiite militias take position in the northern part of Diyala province. (AFP)

By Trackpersia

November 11, 2021

In recent years, fighters of the extremist groups of the Islamic State (IS) have used Iranian weapons to control some parts of Diyala province, which borders Iran, after Iran-linked Shiite militias within Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) abandoned some of their positions in the province, allegedly due to concerns about being targeted by US drone strikes.

Last October, the predominately-Sunni village of Nahr al-Imam was reportedly attacked by Armed Shiite men along with pro-Iran Shiite militiamen within Iraq’s PMF killing dozens of residents of this village including women, children, and elderly men. Hundreds of homes and farms belonging to the victims were burnt and destroyed.

Both members of Bani Tamim tribe and militants linked to  PMF and backed by Tehran took part in the criminal acts against the victims of Nahr al-Imam. Interestingly, the PMF members are part of Iraq’s military forces and on the Iraqi state’s payroll.

Diyala province, which stretches from the Iranian border to just north of the capital, Baghdad, is crossed by the Hamrin mountain chain, infamous for its longstanding use as a hideout for insurgent groups even before the extremist group of IS existed.

These horrific sectarian acts were a form of retaliation for the attacks on 26 October carried out by IS against members of a Shiite-majority tribe of Bani Tamim which resides in the village of al-Rashad. At least 11 people from the Shiite Bani Tamim tribe were reportedly killed and more than a dozen injured.

Despite the criminal sectarian acts perpetrated by the pro-Iran-backed militias and their fellows from al-Rashad village against the Sunni residents of Nahr al-Imam lasted for several days, the Iraqi security did not intervene to save the lives and properties of the victims. Instead, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi claimed that it had ordered the pursuit of the remnants of the IS groups and promised to increase intelligence gathering to avoid any future security breach.

As expected, al-Khadhimi pledged that the crime “will not go unpunished” and he would chase the perpetrators “wherever they are whether inside or outside Iraq. The Iraqi authorities later deployed forces around Muqdadiya and Nahr al-Imam village. However, the consequent Iraqi security forces’ operations failed to quell the widespread concerns and the discontent of victims and their fellow locals.  Many in the area are still unhappy with the security forces in the area; while security officials have claimed that some tribes still have many IS affiliates among them.

Diyala has suffered the most sectarian killings targeting the Sunni Arabs of Iraq since the invasion because of being an ethnically and religiously mixed province. It has witnessed heavy fighting between armed groups backed by Iran on one hand and the IS on the other. Consequently, Diyala’s Sunni Arabs have become the target of forced displacement by pro-Iran militias in Iraq to make a demographic change that serves Tehran policy in the region. The crimes perpetrated against the Sunni Arabs in Diyala have also resulted in the disintegration of the security forces in the province and the dominance of Iran-allied Shiite militias and their fellow Shiite living in the province.

In mid-2014, IS extremist group controlled vast swathes of territory in Iraq but Diyala was not among the cities that entirely fell under the extremist group’s control. Nonetheless, some remote towns and villages in the province witnessed several bloody attacks by the IS. At the height of the sectarian conflicts in 2006 and 2007 in Iraq, the Sunni Arabs of Diyala became the targets of revenge and sectarian killings at the hands of pro-Iran Shiite militias.

The most shocking impact of the recent attacks perpetrated by the pro-Iran Shiite militias on the Sunni Arabs of Diyala’s Nahr al-Imam is that after hundreds of homes and orchards were burnt, thousands of local inhabitants have had nothing to rely on for their livelihoods and there is no hope of return for those who fled to avoid death.

The victims of similar acts perpetrated by Iran-backed Shiite militias in Diyala during the war on IS in early 2015 that managed to flee have become permanent internally displaced in a camp in the northern province of Kirkuk. There is a similar case in Diyala’s al-Muqdadiyah, where the recent attacks on Sunni Arabs at the hands of pro-Iran militias occurred. The victims of this town recounted horrific stories of being targeted by the sectarian Shiite militias backed by Iraqi military airstrikes. Those who did not manage to flee had been killed by the airstrikes, their male relatives had been kidnapped by the militias or they had been executed.

Similar acts of burning down orchards in Sunni rural areas of Iraq, in particular Salahuddin province’s Tarmiya, about 50 kilometres north of Baghdad, had previously been perpetrated by Iran-backed Shiite militias to induce forced displacement with the excuse of fighting terrorism in these areas.

With the security issues have been left to exacerbate in the province, major concerns have been raised about the sectarian killings targeting the Sunni Arabs across Iraq in general and in Diyala province in particular. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the rise of Shiite militarianism sponsored by Tehran, the Sunni Arabs of Iraq have experienced major displacement, in particular where the IS has operational activities. The major issue is such criminal acts have not had much attention from the international community as have had the international terrorist group of IS which the Iraqi government declared victory against in December 2017.

Many from areas that were previously under IS control have not returned home almost four years later, or have no homes to return to. In some cases, such as Jurf al-Sakr, which the Shiite militias have renamed Jurf al-Nasr, they are not being allowed back into the area by Shiite armed forces that have claimed the area for themselves. Criminal acts perpetrated by Iran-backed Shiite militias against the Sunni Arabs in Iraq, such as the latest one, have deprived the victims of their lives, homes and livelihoods. Additionally, they have been used by both pro-Iran sectarian Shiite militias and the IS for propaganda purposes and this has exacerbated the suffering of the victims.

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.