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Baqubah still a minefield of Iraqi sectarian tensions

The city and the rest of Diyala province deal with the lingering animosity between Shiites and Sunnis.

December 07, 2008|Ned Parker | Parker is a Times staff writer.

BAQUBAH, IRAQ — Tariq Jawrani inspected his brother's corpse. Blood crusted the nose and mouth, his skull was fractured, and bruises covered his stomach, back and legs, he said.

Holes were gouged in Bashir's flesh. Baqubah police said the marks were from tubes inserted because of kidney failure, but his family said the 34-year-old had been in good health before police officers detained him at a checkpoint late last month.

Iraqi police insist that the Sunni leader's death last week was of natural causes and that he had confessed to killing Shiite families in Diyala province.

His family and supporters counter that he had fought Islamist extremists and helped resettle Shiite families in the last year as a member of the U.S.-funded Sons of Iraq security force.

Tariq described his one hospital visit with his brother. "He was unconscious, and we wrapped him with a blanket. One of my relatives who wanted to test his consciousness asked him: 'Do you know my name?' and he answered with one [sentence]: 'They killed me.' Afterward, they didn't let us to stay," he told The Times.

Multiple investigations are underway, but the episode speaks volumes about the deep mistrust between Diyala's Shiite and Sunni populations, and lays bare the difficulties Iraq faces in reaching reconciliation.

The conduct of senior commanders in the Shiite-dominated security forces in Diyala has been questioned in recent months, with their behavior evoking memories of Baghdad during the depths of civil war.

The Iraqi army and police have arrested hundreds of Sunni Arabs, many of them prominent members of the Sons of Iraq and the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni bloc in the parliament.

"The Iraqi security forces have played a terrible role in Diyala," said a close observer of the Iraqi government, who could not be identified because of political sensitivities. "I view it [Diyala] as the blackest of the black in terms of sectarian operations.

"I have real questions about how things are done out there," he said.

Despite the arrests and allegations of torture, U.S. officials have agreed to hand full control of the Sons of Iraq program to the Diyala security command next month. The U.S. Army has issued statements expressing confidence that there would be a successful transition, citing the transfer of responsibility for fighters in Baghdad to the Iraqi government.

"The government is doing the right thing. Baghdad has gone quite well, and we expect that the rest of the provinces will do the same," Lt. Col. Jeffrey Kulmayer, the U.S. military's point man for the transition, said in a statement.

The streets of Baqubah serve as a rejoinder to such optimism. Scorched walls and bullet-riddled buildings are reminders of previous efforts by U.S. forces to hand over security responsibility to the Iraqis, only to see Sunni-Shiite violence spiral out of control and shatter any stability that had started to take hold.

Most of the destruction has occurred in the last four years. The Shiite mosque, blown up, its floors caved in, concrete chunks sticking up. The roundabouts where insurgents pulled suspected government employees out of their cars and shot them. The heaps of rubble from U.S. airstrikes.

People wander the wreckage now, trying to pick up a semblance of a normal life. Women inspect tomatoes and eggplants at outdoor stalls. A storefront displays children's bicycles of blue and red, giving a speck of brightness to the tattered landscape. But the city remains a minefield of sectarian divisions.

In the Tahrir district, a former insurgent enclave, two Sons of Iraq leaders sit in a dimly lighted living room decorated with red plastic flowers. Abu Taleb, a middle-aged man with a slight paunch, switches houses each night, afraid of being arrested. This day, he and his deputy visit with his father, a retired military officer. They speak of a world of conspiracies, where operatives of Shiite political parties are planning to arrest them.

"There is a conspiracy against us and they have raided our houses and broken our furniture. They stole my belongings," Abu Taleb said, gesturing around the room. "They want to eliminate anyone who wants to participate in the elections. This is how they understand democracy."

The two men list the names of their fighters who they believe were killed by Al Qaeda in Iraq, and those they suspect were killed by parties affiliated with the Shiite-led government. Nothing can be proved. All they have is their seeming paranoia.

Across town, the governor of Diyala, Raad Tamimi, a short, bald man in a gray suit and green tie, paces the office where for much of the last four years the Shiite had been under siege from Sunni insurgents, many of whom later joined the Sons of Iraq.

His office is decorated with portraits of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and U.S. generals. Giant sofas line the walls, and in the center is his massive wooden desk, where he used to take shelter from incoming mortar rounds.

The governor has survived 10 assassination attempts; 25 of his bodyguards have been killed.

There were days when his compound was a ghost town, as staff members stopped reporting to work because they were afraid of attacks.

"We gave so much sacrifice to Iraq. We lost so many people," Tamimi said. "I kept on working. I always came to work."

Tamimi raised his hands in the air and made a point of proclaiming his unity with Sunnis and Shiites. "I am a Shiite but have done my duties for everyone," he said.

But even he knows his side in Diyala's sectarian conflict. He warns visitors not to be fooled by the Sons of Iraq. When asked about who makes up the majority in Diyala, he answers: the Shiites.

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ned.parker@latimes.com

A special correspondent in Baqubah contributed to this report.

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