Al-Zarqawi Reportedly Moves to New Area of Iraq

A report by al-Jazeera satellite TV on January 22, citing Iraqi military officials who claim that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, is in the Diyala province (northeast of Baghdad), runs contrary to the assessments of Iraqi intelligence services and U.S. military intelligence in Iraq.

The new Iraqi intelligence service (headed by Mohammad Shahwani), U.S. military intelligence and the Badr Organization (which operates an independent parallel intelligence service) have long believed that the core of the al-Zarqawi network is concentrated around the Euphrates River valley in northern Anbar, along which the key towns of Qaim, Haditha, Hit, Ramadi, Habbaniyah and Fallujah are situated. These towns are considered to be the most insecure and dangerous in Iraq, where insurgents have—at one time or another—exerted complete control.

The assessment of U.S. and Iraqi intelligence derives from intense counter-insurgency operations and the interrogation of thousands of captured insurgents. Moreover, Anbar and Nineveh provinces are the only areas in Iraq where the al-Zarqawi network has developed roots, not least because of the proximity to the Syrian border, from where the vast majority of jihadis infiltrate the strife-torn country. Given the realities on the ground, the al-Zarqawi network is highly unlikely to move key figures outside its main base of operation for prolonged periods.

More broadly, Diyala is a stronghold of the so-called "Nationalist" insurgency, where even indigenous Islamist rebels (mostly connected to the "Islamic Army in Iraq") have been discouraged from operating in the province. The local characteristics of Diyala’s insurgents, coupled with the proliferation of Iraqi nationalist organizations (which operate in the open under the guise of civil society forums), make it extremely difficult for jihadis to operate in the province. If al-Zarqawi was operating from Diyala, it is likely that he would be quickly identified and killed by Iraqi rebels who are now beginning to distance themselves from extremist insurgents and jihadis.

After Anbar province, Diyala ranks as the most strife-torn region in Iraq. There are four factors that explain the volatility of this most strategic region of Iraq’s 18 provinces. First of all, Diyala has historically been a bastion of Arab and Iraqi nationalism (Baathist or otherwise). The province’s strategic location and its proximity to Iran make it a highly prized and sensitive region in the eyes of Iraqi nationalists. While the downfall of Saddam Hussein had a catastrophic impact on the morale of Arab and Iraqi nationalists in Diyala, these forces quickly mobilized to fight the U.S. and its Iraqi allies.

Second, Diyala is the only province in Iraq where Shi’ites and Sunnis are represented in roughly equal numbers. While there are no official statistics, the former are believed to have a slight majority. The finely balanced sectarian demographics became a violently contentious issue after the intervention, which has promoted identity politics in Iraq. Broadly speaking, the Shi’ites in Diyala regard SCIRI and the Badr Organization as protectors and employers, while the Sunnis see these organizations as Iranian-backed quislings that are exploiting the occupation to consolidate power.

Third, SCIRI and the Badr Organization have had a strong presence in Diyala since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In fact, the Badr Organization (in its previous capacity as the Badr Corps) entered Iraq from the Diyala province from April 9, 2003 to early May 2003 and established bases in Baqouba (the province’s capital), Miqdadiyah and Khalis. In that crucial month, Badr forces fought pitched battles with remnants of the ousted regime, including Baath party diehards, Diyala tribesmen loyal to Saddam Hussein and the Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organization (Terrorism Monitor, Volume 1: Issue 5, November 7, 2003). As the insurgency deteriorated in Diyala, the Badr Organization steadily increased its presence and operations.

Finally, the presence of an Iranian dissident group, the formerly-armed Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MKO), in Diyala has created tensions between prominent tribesmen and other influential actors in and around Khalis, where the MKO’s Ashraf base is located. While the MKO (which is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government and the European Union) was disarmed in May 2003 and the movement of its members are supposedly monitored by U.S. forces, the organization regularly hosts meetings in Ashraf in which tribesmen and other influential individuals from Diyala (many with links to the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein) voice support for the organization, demand a withdrawal of foreign troops and strongly attack the new Iraqi government. The emergence of Ashraf as a platform for Iraqi nationalists has prompted the Badr Organization to increase surveillance operations in and around Khalis, and to engage in intimidation campaigns against key individuals who visit the camp.

The visit to Mashad (northeast Iran) by a Diyala tribal, legal and religious delegation reveals an intriguing (and under-reported) feature of the Iraq conflict. The delegation was hosted by the Habilian Association (http://habilian.com), a research and propaganda outlet that is close to the Iranian security establishment. While the visit was ostensibly touted as an opportunity to discuss ways of expelling the MKO from Iraq, the transcript of the main meeting (http://habilian.com/view.asp?ID=00439) leaves little doubt that the event was tied to the growing insurgency in Diyala and its local, national and international ramifications.

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