Situated between Baghdad and the Iranian border, Diyala is a microcosm of Iraq in all its volatility. A mix of Sunni and Shiite Arabs as well as Kurds, Diyala was claimed as the capital of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s proposed caliphate, and it remains a locus of AQI operations. There is oil wealth in the northern part of the province, and as one moves south, the landscape gives way to date palms and lush orange groves along the Diyala River.
Baquba, the provincial seat, is only thirty-five miles northeast of Baghdad, but the last time I was there was in 2005, on an embed with the US military. It was a dangerous place then, and it still is. On the eve of the US military withdrawal, now apparently a foregone conclusion, Diyala remains under lockdown. The main street, where the provincial council and police station sit, is closed to civilian automobiles. The situation is better than it was at the height of the civil war, between 2006 and 2008, but attacks and explosions are still commonplace here, as they are in Baghdad and other parts of the country, and checkpoints control exit and entry from most neighborhoods.
The US military withdrew from all but one base around Baquba in early October, but it has been a long time since the American military was the most serious danger to average Iraqis. However, few Iraqis I spoke to wanted US forces to remain; they are still seen as a primary reason for the beginning of the violence, and are still blamed by all sides for fanning sectarian flames. The country, as it has since the beginning of the US invasion, overwhelmingly rejects the idea of foreign occupation, even as civil conflict still smolders.
“There have been six bombs here in the past three weeks,” Rashid Hussein Ali told me as he stood next to a Shiite shrine on the road between downtown Baquba and Buhriz, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood. The shrine has been the target of multiple bombings since the civil war began.
As Ali spoke, an explosion rumbled nearby. He pointed to the graveyard behind the shrine, where some families were picnicking. “We need someone to protect this open area,” he said. Clearly, he didn’t have much faith in the police checkpoint that we could see within shouting distance.
From the very beginning of the US occupation, the “Baghdad Belt” was an area of concern to the US military. The demographically mixed cities and villages surrounding the nation’s capital saw some of the worst violence of the past eight years, and they continue to pose problems for the Iraqi government. In Anbar province, to the west of Baghdad, it was possible for me on this trip to travel and operate safely in Falluja—site of the most sustained guerrilla resistance to the United States. But in Abu Ghraib, just fifteen minutes west of the capital, it was too dangerous for me to get out of the car. There, Sunni sheiks accuse Iraqi army units answering directly to the prime minister’s office of continuing the cycle of displacement that had begun under Saddam Hussein, only in reverse: they say the Shiite-dominated government of Nouri Kamal al-Maliki has been driving Sunni families out of Abu Ghraib in recent months in an effort to permanently change the area’s demographics.
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But Sunni versus Shiite is not the only fissure in Iraq.
Back in Diyala, only sixty miles separate Baquba and Khanaqin, to the northeast, but the drive takes more than two hours. There are dozens of checkpoints, some of them less than 500 yards apart. A few miles outside Khanaqin, Iraqi flags disappear, and the checkpoints are manned by pesh merga (Kurdish militiamen).