BAQUBA, Iraq (AFP) – Some 30,000 Iraqi soldiers and police are to launch a military assault against Al-Qaeda fighters and insurgents in Diyala province from August 1, army and police officers said Wednesday.
“The operation is aimed at cleansing the region of insurgents, Al-Qaeda and militias who are still there,” a senior Iraqi military officer told AFP on condition of anonymity.
He said some 30,000 soldiers and policemen from across Iraq would take part in the crackdown in the central province starting August 1.
Senior Iraqi police officials in Baquba, the capital of Diyala, confirmed the assault would start on August 1.
“It will be an operation led by the Iraqi army. The US army will probably only watch… If they need help, we’ll help them. If not, we will not do anything,” a US military officer said.
Iraq’s interior ministry spokesman Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf announced on July 13 that the Iraqi military would launch an assault in Diyala but did not specify the date.
He said troops expected tough fighting during the assault.
Diyala and its capital Baquba are Iraq’s most dangerous regions with insurgents regularly carrying out attacks, including by female suicide bombers.
The looming assault in Diyala follows similar Iraqi military operations in the southern provinces of Basra and Maysan, and the northern province of Nineveh.
Aided by the US military and Iraqi forces, local anti-Qaeda groups known as “Sahwa” or Awakening councils, have inflicted severe blows on Al-Qaeda but the extremist group continues to carry out attacks in the region.
“Yes. Diyala remains the most dangerous province in Iraq,” said Colonel Ali al-Karkhi, commanding officer of Iraqi forces in Khan Beni Sad, a town near Baquba which has been torn apart by the violence.
“But understand that it is a mini-Iraq. There are Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Christians,” the colonel told AFP in an interview.
“The other provinces are far less mixed which is why it is so difficult to restore peace here. It is also the reason why people are so extremist,” he said.
As in other parts of Iraq, the colonel said, the locals have grown weary of violence and massacres and want peace and reconstruction, particularly through economic development.
Diyala, fed by the Euphrates and Diyala rivers, was once the granary of Iraq and the country’s orange capital with its lush orchards.
But “foreign countries have sown the disorder,” lamented Colonel Karkhi, pointing a finger at Shiite Iran, which shares a border with Diyala.
“We captured five people (Iraqis) who 45 days ago were in Iran for training. They receive instructions from the Iranian services and their business is to kill people,” he said.
The US military claims that most of these militants are “rogue” members of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia, the militant wing of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement.
Karkhi said the militants apart from receiving weapons, are paid three million dinars (2,400 dollars) monthly. “It is good money,” he said.
He said security forces usually display the names and photographs of wanted people at check-points.
“The problem is that when we apply pressure they flee to Iran,” Karkhi said.