Today, July 29, U.S. and Iraqi forces began a new major offensive in Diyala province east of Baghdad. Up to 30,000 soldiers and police are participating, a number similar to other recent operations in Basra and Mosul. Diyala is one of the few remaining areas that still has widespread instability. Operations began in the provincial capitol of Baquba where vehicles were banned. In Mid-June, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that the crackdown was being planned. Originally, Iraqi forces said they would begin on August 1.
The head of Iraqi forces in the province said their main target will be Al Qaeda in Iraq. Many of their fighters have fled to Diyala in 2008, looking to re-establish bases to carry out operations after crackdowns in areas such as Mosul. In May for example, 300 Al Qaeda fighters held a parade in the village of al-Asiwa. The province has also seen the largest number of female suicide bombers in 2008, a new tactic being used by the Islamist organization.
Diyala has also been used as a supply route for Iranian weapons to Baghdad. Arms smugglers and Shiite Special Groups would ferry weapons from Iran through Diyala to the eastern Baghdad neighborhoods of Sadr City, Shaab, and Urb. This will also be a target of the offensive.
As reported earlier, Diyala has been the site of Arab-Kurdish tensions, inter-Shiite battles, and contentious Sons of Iraq units. The Kurds have designs on annexing northern sections of the province, the Mahdi Army and Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council have battled over control of the local security forces, and Sons of Iraq (SOI) units have been formed that have also clashed with Iraqi forces. SOIs have actually asked to participate in the government’s crackdown, but the security forces have said that only they will be able to operate during the offensive.
If previous crackdowns are any indication, Iraqi forces will be able to provide a modicum of security in the province. Since the operation was announced so far in advance, many militants will probably have fled beforehand, leaving lower level fighters to be swept up in round-ups or lie low. The next stage will be searches for weapons stashes. These will probably go smoothly. The real issue will be whether the government will be able to mediate between the Arabs and Kurds, and Sunnis and Shiites in the province. That is a much bigger challenge for not only Diyala, but the rest of Iraq as security continues to improve.
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