ISIS attack fuels sectarian tension in Iraq’s Diyala province

Ethnically and religiously diverse Diyala province suffered heavy fighting at the height of Iraq’s sectarian conflict in 2006 and 2007

IRAQ, BAGHDAD - JUNE 24: An Iraqi Army soldier talks with Abu Sayif before searching his home during a patrol in the suburb of Sadiyah, on Wednesday, June 25, 2008 in Baghdad, Iraq. (Photography by Warrick Page/The National)
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Sectarian tension was high in Iraq's eastern province of Diyala in the wake of ISIS miltants' attack on a Shiite village on Tuesday night that killed at least 11 civilians and wounded dozens.

Locals from Al Rashad village outside the town of Muqdadidya where the attack took place, on Wednesday accused Sunni residents in the nearby Nahr Al Imam village of harbouring ISIS militants.

The attack started about 8pm when militants killed three men in an orchard on the outskirts of the village.

“The armed men called the families of the victims from their own phones and told them: ‘We are the Islamic State, come and take the bodies of your sons, the dogs’,” Abdul-Rahman Al Tamimi, a resident, told The National.

When the residents rushed to the scene, ISIS militants ambushed them.

“They showered them with bullets followed by mortar rounds,” Mr Al Tamimi said.

“Nahr Al Imam village is the source of terrorism. This is not the first time Daesh emerged from the village to attack us,” he said.

“For years, ISIS militants launch bomb attacks on the main road and orchards, terrorise and kill the families on the outskirts of the village,” he said.

He denied reports on local media that a retaliatory attack was launched against Nahr Al Imam village that killed some civilians, saying “only few abandoned houses were burnt out.”

Another resident told The National that the locals refused to collect the bodies to hold a funeral, demanding the arrest of the perpetrators.

"The residents are armed to the teeth, they want a solution," he said.

Officials including the country’s National Security Adviser Qassim Al Araji, Chief of Staff of the Iraqi Army Lt Gen Abdul-Amir Yarallah and Hadi Al Amiri, head of the Badr Organisation, a paramilitary group turned political party that kept its military wing, visited the area.

The three officials met local authorities and the residents in an attempt to calm the situation and reassure the villagers.

"We can't wait any more. We previously informed the government about Daesh activities in Nahr Al Imam village and nothing happened," the resident said.

Dyala's governor and the provincial security official could not be reached for a comment.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi ordered the pursuit of "the remnants of terrorist Daesh gangs and increase intelligence gathering in order not to repeat such security breach", according to a government statement.

The ethnically and religiously mixed Diyala province suffered heavy fighting at the height of Iraq’s sectarian conflict in 2006 and 2007. Revenge killings took place between Sunni and Shiite villages in previous years, killing and displacing residents.

In an effort to contain the sectarian tension, Iraqi authorities on Wednesday stationed security forces in and around Muqdadiya and the two villages.

In mid-2014, ISIS controlled vast portions of territory in Iraq and Syria with several million inhabitants.

Diyala was not among Iraqi cities that fell under their control, but its main towns and remote villages were the sites of several bloody attacks.

Nearly four years after declaring the group defeated, its militants are still able to regroup, move and carry out attacks, albeit in remote areas.

This poses a challenge to Iraqi security forces despite progress in arresting and killing senior field leaders.

Attacks are still at historic lows, particularly in urban areas where the extremists seek influence.

Alarmed by Tuesday's attack, Iraqi President Barham Salih described it a "villainous attempt to destabilise the country".

Mr Al Kadhimi said the crime “will not go unpunished” and vowed to chase perpetrators “wherever they are whether inside or outside Iraq”.

Updated: October 27, 2021, 2:04 PM