BAGHDAD — Concerns about possible attacks during the Shiite Muslim Ashura religious celebrations that began this week led to heightened security and concerns across both much of the Middle East and Afghanistan.
In the Iraqi capital, there were no reported attacks. In the Diyala province along the Iranian border, however, a suicide bomber who had been planning on attacking the Shiite celebrations reportedly blew himself up after being surrounded by security forces there.
The attacker, who was wearing an explosive belt, had reportedly been approaching a military headquarters when he was surrounded.
Diyala has a mixed Shiite and Sunni population and a history wrought with extremist and sectarian violence. It has suffered multiple attacks claimed by the Islamic State (IS) in recent months and has for years been one of the most concerning areas in the country in terms of IS incidents.
Four soldiers were killed in a single attack recently in the province.
In October last year, an IS attack against members of a prominent Shiite-majority tribe in Diyala was followed by retaliatory violence against local Sunnis.
As Al-Monitor reported then, “At least 11 people from the Bani Tamim tribe were killed Oct. 26 in the village of al-Rashad and over a dozen injured,” and, “Armed men subsequently attacked the nearby Sunni-majority village of Nahr al-Imam, reportedly killing people and burning and destroying homes and farms in an act of retaliation” against the local Sunni community, many of whom fled the area.
One of the towns in Diyala long known as being troublesome and a flashpoint for sectarian tensions is Jalawla. This journalist reported from the frontline with peshmerga forces during the fight to retake Jalawla from IS in September 2014. Peshmerga forces won it back in late November 2014, but Iraq's central government forces took both Kirkuk and Jalawla away from the peshmerga in October 2017 after a referendum on independence of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) that Baghdad had been opposed to.
There had even as far back as 2015 been tension between Iran-linked forces and the local community, however.
Intelligence officials operating in that area of Iraq have repeatedly told Al-Monitor in recent years that some of the local Sunni tribes remain “close” to IS.
A peshmerga officer recently claimed to Al-Monitor that a new IS formation of around 250 men was operating in Iraq’s Kirkuk and Diyala governorates and around Tuz Khurmato in Salahuddin governorate.
He claimed the unit was being supported by Iran, which he said was trying to recruit Kurds.
An officer for the central government operating in that area contacted by Al-Monitor said that a small IS group there was believed to be led by a man known as Abu Adnan al-Kurdi, a Kurd from the Kifri area of the Diyala governorate.
Iran-linked, Shiite-led Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) continue to have a major presence in the Diyala province, including the 28th Brigade, which was originally known as Saraya Ansar al-Aqeeda and initially “emerged as a fighting force in Syria,” according to researcher Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, on the side of the Syrian government alongside other Iran-linked “muqawama,” or resistance, forces.
Diyala is where a US airstrike killed al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a hideout in 2006.
Jordanian-born Sunni Zarqawi had set up training camps in western Afghanistan, as his recruits would arrive via Iran. He later fled to Iran and then to Kurdish-held areas of northern Iraq after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
He was widely known to have clashed with other al-Qaeda leaders, including the deputy at that time of then-leader Osama bin Laden, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri took the helm of the organization after the Saudi national bin Laden was killed in 2011 in Pakistan.
According to a Washington Post article published shortly after Zarqawi was killed, “Despite written pleas from bin Laden's deputy to change his tactics, Zarqawi alienated allies in the Iraqi insurgency as well as Arab public opinion by killing hundreds of Muslims with suicide bombings. Zarqawi, a Sunni Muslim, repeatedly attacked Shiite shrines and leaders in a bid to fuel an Iraqi civil war instead of primarily fighting the US military and its partners,” and he had “established al-Qaeda's first military beachhead and training camps outside Afghanistan.”
Many of those who fought alongside Zarqawi would later go on to play a major role in IS. IS has often targeted the Shiite community simply for their faith as well as Sunnis who refuse to bend to its rules or fight alongside it.
The United States announced earlier this month that it had killed al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri on July 30 in an upscale area of the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul.
A UN report released in February stated: “The Taliban takeover has made it more likely that Mohammed Salahaldin Abd El Halim Zidane (alias Sayf-Al Adl), in the event that he succeeds al-Zawahiri, will have the option of establishing himself in Afghanistan to take up his new role, although one Member State has denied his presence in the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Iran, which shares a lengthy, porous border with Afghanistan to its east and a long one to its west with Iraq, has long been accused of harboring al-Qaeda leaders.
A great deal of tension prior to and during the start of Ashura was seen in Afghanistan in recent days, where the local branch of IS, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), has conducted many attacks targeting the Shiite minority in the country, including one earlier this month that killed at least eight civilians involved in the annual Ashura religious mourning rituals in a Shiite-dominated western neighborhood of Kabul.
Though they had also targeted the Shiite community themselves during their previous time in power, since taking over the Afghan capital a year ago, the Taliban — or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the group prefers to be called — now claim to be trying to protect the long-persecuted minority and provided security for the Ashura self-flagellation ceremonies.