Iraqi army unit tries to keep sectarian strife at bay

BAQOUBA — An Iraqi army commander tells his men that he might forgive them if they were to place a bomb outside his door but never if they succumbed to the sectarian divisions ripping the country apart.

As internecine bloodshed takes an increasingly heavy toll, local military officials and their US advisers want to ensure that Iraqi soldiers will fight to protect a fragile sovereignty and not side with feuding factions.

No one wants to see the army crippled by the same sectarianism, corruption, abuse scandals and down-right criminality that have plagued the police and other elements of the security forces.

The wariness is increased as an increasingly assertive and better equipped and trained Iraqi army is taking over more responsibilities from US troops in strategic areas such Baghdad and the adjacent Diyala province to the north.

Those two areas, the most confessionally and ethnically mixed parts of the country, have witnessed brutal acts of sectarian violence.

In Baqouba, Diyala’s capital, soldiers from the 4th Battalion, 2nd Brigade of the Iraqi army’s 5th Division have squeezed their US military advisers into one barricaded corner of a camp which once belonged to the former elite Republican Guard of ousted Saddam Hussein.

In the Iraqi quarters, soldiers mill around a few military Humvees emblazoned with the Iraqi flag.

Two colourful posters hung outside one of the barracks read: “We all love Iraq” and “Power lies in unity. Many creeds but one Iraq.” Inside one of the buildings, Brigadier General Samaan Talabani has summoned a dozen of his subordinate officers to discuss his “sovereignty plan” marking two weeks since his unit became officially responsible for southwestern Diyala.

US troops have slipped into more of an advisory and backup role in the area, focused on providing the air and heavy artillery power that the Iraqi army lacks.

Lieutenant Colonel Frank Muggeo, a special operations officer with the US Military Transition Teams (MiTT) working with Talabani’s unit, sits in on the meeting.

“I might forgive a soldier who plants a bomb outside my room, but sectarian behaviour will not be tolerated and this soldier will be expelled. This is a very sensitive and vital issue,” Talabani says as the officers, most of them burly and mustachioed, glance at copies of the plan in front of them.

“We are an army that must contain problems, not take sides. Tell your soldiers when they go on leave to explain to their families that this Sunni-Shiite talk is not going to pay off.” Talabani, 39, is a slim,fit former peshmerga, the Kurdish guerrilla fighters who battled Saddam’s regime and  militants in the northern Kurdistan region.

A cousin of Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, he joined the new Iraqi army last year, renouncing his peshmerga affiliation after studying for a year at the Australian war college in Canberra.

Talabani tells his men that Iraq is not fighting a civil war and that the media have blown “some of the problems” out of proportion.

“I am Sunni Kurd, you are Shiite Arab, you are Sunni Arab, you are Shiite Kurd … and we are all here together,” he explains.

He is a native of Khanaqin in eastern Diyala. The province considered the country’s agricultural heartland is known by natives as “mini Iraq” because of the ethnic and religious diversity of its estimated 1.3 million inhabitants.

Talking to soldiers from the province, one grasps the immense strains they and their communities feel as a result of the sectarian violence.

Daham Hussein, 25, a Sunni Arab from Khalis west of Baqouba, says both his cousin and an army comrade were abducted and killed on the Baqouba-Baghdad highway simply because they had IDs that indicated they were Sunnis.

“Everywhere you go there is death,” says Hassan Al Tammimi, 22, a Shiite Arab.

Fayeq Ahmed, 29, says three months ago he lost 35 of his kinsmen, all from a Shiite clan of the major Shammar tribe. He says their bodies were found in Nahrawan, an industrial area between Baghdad and Diyala that serves as a dumping ground for corpses.

Standing nearby, Saddam Faisal, a 28-year-old Sunni Arab, recounts what happened on Wednesday in his hometown of Muqdadiyah, north of Baqouba, when gunmen kidnapped and killed 22 Shiites from the town’s bus station.

“Insurgents want to kill you because you are in the army and you have people who want to kill you because you are Sunni. It is absolutely unbearable,” Haitham Jawad, 34, says.

He blames government politicians, both Sunnis and Shiites, and especially clerics or those with Islamist leanings, of “pouring petrol on sectarian flames in their rush to grab maximum power”.

The US army’s Muggeo admits “there is tension” but does not believe it has reached the level of civil war.

He is hoping that the training which soldiers undergo and the influence of officers like Talabani will help rein in sectarian instincts.

“We need more Talabanis,” says Muggeo, who has helped train armies in Afghanistan, Africa and the Middle East. 

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