Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

A Journey to Iraq’s "Taliban Republic"



Diyala, Iraq.

Civil war is raging through the Iraqi countryside. Sunni insurgents have largely taken control of the province of Diyala, where local leaders believe the insurgents are close to establishing a “Taliban republic”.

Officials in the strategically important province–composed of a mixture of Sunnis and Shias with a Kurdish minority–have no doubt about what is happening. Lt-Col Ahmed Ahmed Nuri Hassan, a weary-looking commander of the federal police, says: “Now there is an ethnic civil war and it is getting worse every day.”

At the moment, the Sunni seem to be winning.

As the violence has escalated over the past three years, it has become too dangerous for journalists to find out what is happening in the provinces outside the capital. The UN said last week that 5,106 civilians were killed in Baghdad in July and August and 1,493 in the provinces outside it.

Insurgents have cut the roads out of the capital to the west and the north. As I travelled through the provinces of this vast, war-torn country, despite keeping to the relatively calm tongue of Kurdish territory that extends through the countryside almost to Baghdad, I was keenly aware that it is not a place to make a mistake in map reading.

We drove for a couple of hours beside the Diyala river which rises in Iran’s Zagros mountains and looks like a smaller version of the Nile, a streak of vivid green vegetation running through dun-coloured semi-desert. Then we turned abruptly east before the road entered the strongly insurgent district of As-Sadiyah.

What could have happened if we had continued down the main road was evident at Lt-Col Hassan’s headquarters. In one corner of the courtyard was the wreckage of a blue-and-white police vehicle, ripped apart by a bomb. “Five policemen were killed in it when it was blown up at an intersection in As-Sadiyah two months ago,” a policeman told us. “Only their commander survived but both his legs were amputated.”

In Diyala, it is possible to see the anguished break-up of Iraq at ground level. Going by the accounts of police and government officials in the province, the death toll outside Baghdad may be far higher than previously reported. Ibrahim Hassan Bajalan, the head of Diyala’s provincial council–who had survived an attempt to assassinate him in Baquba with a mortar attack the previous day–says he believed that “on average, 100 people are being killed in Diyala every week.”

The latest were three civilians shot dead yesterday by unidentified assailants. Behind them, as the killers sped away in their car through the streets of Baquba, the families of the dead were left to grieve, falling to their knees and throwing their arms open to the sky in despair.

Many of those who die disappear for ever, thrown into the Diyala river or buried in date palm groves and fruit orchards. The reason for their killings can be spurious, and people have become careful to avoid incurring the wrath of local Sunni insurgents who control much of the province according to strict Islamic laws. “They have even banned the sale of cigarettes in the provincial capital, Baquba, and kill anybody selling cigarettes,” Mr Bajalan said. “I have to bring in cigarettes from other places to give them to council members who are smokers.”

In a house in Khanaqin, a Kurdish enclave in the north-east of the province, Nazar Ali Mirza, a sorrowful-looking middle-aged woman, described how she had fled too late from Muqdadiyah, the Sunni-dominated town of 200,000 people where she was born. She was caught by surprise when death squads began to target Kurds and Shias in her neighbourhood. Her eldest son, Khalil Mohammed Ahmed, a taxi driver, went out to collect a washing machine in March and never came back. She is beginning to assume he is dead but no body was discovered.

“Kurds and Shias were being driven out of our district,” she said. “Men in black masks came to me and said they would kill my sons, even if they flew up into the sky, unless I moved away.” One of her other sons was a policeman permanently disabled in a bomb explosion.

Mrs Mirza and her family are among 300,000 Iraqis forced to flee their homes since the beginning of the year. Everywhere, minorities frightened for their lives are on the move. “Nobody waits any longer to find out if a threat is real,” says Mamosta Mohsin, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Khanaqin which, in effect, runs the town. “Even if the threat is organised by two children, people will run.” Most often, the threat is real. Lt-Col Hassan has a collection of files in which the names of the latest refugees are registered. Most of them are Kurds coming from Baghdad, Ramadi, Baquba and the rest of the country.

He hands over a piece of paper showing how the number of refugee families arriving in this small town had risen from 29 in January to 318 in June. It was still 239 in August.

Lt-Col Hassan says that neither Sunni nor Shia are particularly well organised: “It is not like Lebanon, because most of the killing is done by local or tribal militias.” The problem is not that the insurgents are strong but that the government forces are so weak. A division of 7,000 government soldiers is in Diyala, he said, “but they are all Shias and only arrest Sunnis.”

Mr Bajalan confirms that the army is weak in Diyala, saying most of it is tied down at checkpoints. He reckons there is one soldier for every 50 square kilometres of the province. “The soldiers are badly armed,” he says.

“They just have Kalashnikovs while the terrorists have rocket launchers and heavy machine guns. When they attack, they always kill 10 or 15 army or police.”

The Americans do have a base near Baquba, and act in a supportive role when they are asked to. “That isn’t much use against guerrillas,” says Mr Bajalan. “They’ve all gone home by the time the Americans arrive.”

Baghdad announced signal successes around Baquba last week, including the capture of leaders of two Sunni insurgent groups. But nobody in Diyala had heard about it, and, without exception, they expected the civil war to grow in intensity.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘ published by Verso.




Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 26, 2016
John W. Whitehead
A Deep State of Mind: America’s Shadow Government and Its Silent Coup
Anthony Tarrant
On the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness
Luke O'Brien
The Churchill Thing: Some Big Words About Trump and Some Other Chap
Mark Weisbrot
The Most Dangerous Place in the World: US Pours in Money, as Blood Flows in Honduras
Eric Draitser
Dear Liberals: Trump is Right
Chris Welzenbach
The Establishment and the Chattering Hack: a Response to Nicholas Lemann
Sabia Rigby
In the “Jungle:” Report from the Refugee Camp in Calais, France
Linn Washington Jr.
Pot Decriminalization Yields $9-million in Savings for Philadelphia
Pepe Escobar
“America has lost” in the Philippines
Pauline Murphy
Political Feminism: the Legacy of Victoria Woodhull
Lizzie Maldonado
The Burdens of World War III
David Swanson
Slavery Was Abolished
Thomas Mountain
Preventing Cultural Genocide with the Mother Tongue Policy in Eritrea
Colin Todhunter
Agrochemicals And The Cesspool Of Corruption: Dr. Mason Writes To The US EPA
October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation Wasted $32.2 Million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future