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Diyala Crackdown Meets Little Resistance

July 30, 2008

By Nicholas Spangler and Laith Hammoudi, The Miami Herald

Jul. 30–BAGHDAD — Iraqi infantry, supported by artillery, the Iraqi air force and U.S. forces, on Tuesday began what was described as a major operation in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad. Iraqi forces said they had encountered no resistance to the crackdown, which the army had announced six days earlier.

Residents of Baqouba, the provincial capital, woke to find new checkpoints in neighborhoods throughout the city, but most people stayed in their houses. Troops arrested 20 suspected insurgents, according to a spokesman for Ali Ghaidan, the commander of Iraqi ground troops in the province.

As many as 30,000 Iraqi army troops were deployed, the spokesman said.

“The situation until now has been very good, and people are cooperating,” said the spokesman, who couldn’t be identified under the ground rules that Ghaidan set. “Even those who run away will be chased, because authorities are gathering information [about their hiding places]. We even know the places they went to and we will chase them in all the provinces.”

The spokesman said that the offensive’s main aim was to clear the province and its suburbs “of terrorists and outlaws,” as well as to secure the border with Iran.

FORMER HOT SPOT

Diyala province — predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab but with large Shiite Muslim Arab and Kurdish minorities — has been the scene of some of the bloodiest sectarian violence in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion, and remains one of the most restive — and lethal — provinces in the country.

During the worst years of the war, the Kurdish peshmerga militia operated in the north, while the largely Sunni al Qaeda in Iraq and allied groups such as Jaish al Mujahedeen battled Shiite militias in the south and around Baqouba.

Al Qaeda in Iraq declared an Islamic state in Diyala in 2006, and its leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi used the region as a base until a U.S. airstrike killed him there later that year.

Over the past two years, fighters from many Sunni insurgent groups in Diyala and the western province of Anbar united under the banner of the Awakening, a U.S.-funded group that’s been instrumental in crippling al Qaeda in Iraq.

While al Qaeda in Iraq has continued attacking police and Awakening fighters in Diyala, many of the Iraqi commando operations in recent weeks have targeted the so-called “special groups,” anti-government Shiite militias that U.S. military officials say have received training and funding in Iran.

TIME TO FLEE

The Diyala offensive follows major operations in Baghdad’s Sadr City district, Basra, Mosul and Amara. As with some of those operations, this one has been anticipated for weeks, giving insurgents ample time to escape.

“In Iraq nowadays we have no secrets,” said Taha Dira’a, a parliament member from Diyala. Nevertheless, he said, “I expect to have success and stability in this province.”

As in Amara and Basra — where police chiefs were removed just before or during the operations — there was a shake-up in Iraqi security forces in Diyala, with the dismissal Monday of Abdulkareem al Rubai’I, the commander of military operations.

Kirkuk and Baghdad remained calm Tuesday after suicide attacks on Shiite pilgrims killed dozens and wounded hundreds Monday. As millions of pilgrims returned home, the government lifted a curfew on vehicular travel.

Spangler is a reporter for The Miami Herald. Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent in Baghdad. Special correspondent Hussein Kadhim in Baghdad contributed to this article, as did a special correspondent in Diyala province who can’t be named for security reasons.

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