A federal investigation is ongoing into a deadly February 20 attack on unarmed farmers in Iraq's Diyala province -- an incident local residents say bears the hallmarks of Iran-aligned militias.
At about 2pm on the day of the incident, gunmen stormed the village of al-Jayaila in the town of al-Khalis, killing two women and seven other members of the al-Azza clan, and wounding a number of others.
The attackers also kidnapped a farmer, whose dead body was discovered later.
Local residents told Al-Mashareq that about 50 gunmen, some riding motorcycles and carrying machine guns, took part in the assault, opening fire on unarmed farmers as they ploughed their land.
While some reports pointed to a tribal dispute between the al-Azza clan and the al-Dulaim, of the nearby village of al-Boubali, local officials said this was not the case.
Al-Jayaila residents also disputed this version of events, blaming "influential" militias for the deadly violence.
'Iran-backed militias to blame'
"The perpetrators of this crime were armed elements of Iran-backed groups," a resident of the village told Al-Mashareq, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He did not name the groups involved, saying only that they have "great influence and the freedom to move, bear arms and challenge the rule of law".
These groups control the fate of the province and threaten the peace, he added, noting that "the elements who belong to them are known".
In Diyala, many fingers point to the Badr Organisation, a militia led by Hadi al-Ameri, as well as to Asaib Ahl al-Haq, led by Qais al-Khazaali, which have a heavy presence in the province and have committed previous crimes there.
In a first-person account of the al-Jayaila attack that circulated on social media, one of the injured named one of the perpetrators as "Abu Aqil" of the Badr Organisation.
Local residents claim the militias are trying to sow discord and undermine the co-existence between religious groups in the area by launching random attacks with a sectarian undertone.
The al-Jayaila attack came on the heels of a December 19 attack claimed by the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) on the village of al-Boubali that left eight people dead and four injured.
Iraqi MP Raad al-Dahlaki, who represents Diyala in parliament, told Al-Mashareq the al-Jayaila attack was carried out by "unruly militias carrying weapons outside the framework of the state".
Regardless of the identity of the perpetrators, he said, "we are looking at a crime committed by criminals who killed innocent and defenseless people in broad daylight -- and these [criminals] must be punished according to the law".
A large government delegation, comprising officials and security leaders, attended the funeral ceremonies for the victims, and an extensive investigation has been opened into the incident.
The government is keen to pursue an investigation, al-Dahlaki said, and to reassure local residents that security forces are able to protect them and pursue the perpetrators, regardless of their partisan or regional affiliations.
"This is what we sensed in our recent meetings with Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, who emphasised that he is personally following up on the security issue in Diyala," he said.
During a security meeting, Deputy Commander of Joint Operations Lt. Gen. Qais al-Mohammedawi ordered swift action to arrest the perpetrators.
At least 18 suspects have been arrested to date, local sources told Al-Mashareq, and arrest warrants have been issued for 14 others.
Tightened security in Diyala
In conjunction with the continuing investigation, the authorities are evaluating the security plans in Diyala and tightening security measures in the province's agricultural towns to prevent attacks that threaten peace and stability.
Diyala representatives have petitioned the federal government, asking Baghdad to beef up security in the province, allow residents to participate in protecting their villages, and eliminate the threat posed by armed militias and ISIS cells.
Diyala governor Muthanna al-Tamimi stressed the province's social cohesion, saying at the time of the al-Jayaila victims' funeral that everyone agrees on the necessity of preventing the recurrence of such attacks.
"This is evidenced by the attendance of representatives of all the people of the province at the funeral ceremonies and their condemnation of this terrorist act," he said.
"Al-Jayaila and al-Boubali are two neighbouring villages," he said. "We have seen great solidarity between the elders of the two villages, who denounced the incident."
"This act represents only the perpetrators," al-Tamimi said.