BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Sunday he would send more troops to volatile Diyala province in a bid to halt sectarian fighting that has forced out hundreds of families in the past five days.
Maliki did not say how many extra Iraqi security forces would follow 3,000 U.S. troops already sent to the religiously mixed province northeast of Baghdad during the past six weeks.
“In the next few days we will increase the number of troops in the Iraqi Army ... and the police on a significant level,” he told reporters.
The Iraqi Red Crescent said 768 Shi’ite families have left villages near the town of Khalis in Diyala after militants swept through and forced them out.
“The people of Diyala are going through a humanitarian tragedy. Whole families were forced to leave the Ambugiya villages (around Khalis) and resettled in Baghdad, taking only the clothes they were wearing,” said Red Crescent spokeswoman Wafaa Mahmoud.
She said most of the latest victims were Ambugiya villagers who were attacked by suspected al Qaeda militants on Tuesday.
Diyala, a large, ethnically mixed region northeast of Baghdad, has seen some of the worst violence since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Sectarian killings and attacks by al Qaeda occur regularly and raise fears of full-scale civil war.
It is a mainly Sunni Arab province but also has significant Shi’ite and Kurdish populations.
Insurgents have tried to establish a Taliban-style rule by banning smoking, forcing young schoolgirls to wear veils and attacking restaurants and Internet cafes deemed “un-Islamic”.
Residents say Iraqi and U.S. security forces rarely venture into many districts of Diyala’s provincial capital Baquba.
“We are just hiding in our own houses. We are unable to move anywhere because we are afraid,” said Nour Ali, 36.
Thair Ismael, a 44-year-old retired civil servant, complained that there were few basic services.
“Some areas have been without clean drinking water for weeks. Not only have the militants ruined our lives, they are throwing us out of our own homes,” he said.
Local officials have long demanded that the government do more to protect the area, as well as much-needed food supplies that are often attacked in Baquba.
Thousands of extra U.S. and Iraqi troops are engaged in a security push aimed at reducing sectarian violence in Baghdad in an attempt to avert all-out civil war.
But violence has increased outside the capital since the security push began in mid-February.
Additional reporting by Faris al-Mehdawi