Air strikes have destroyed civilian homes rather
than al-Qaeda targets under the U.S. military operation in Baquba, residents
But signs have emerged of an al-Qaeda presence here earlier, and some residents
speak of relief that al-Qaeda has been driven out of the city by U.S. forces.
Located 50km northeast of Baghdad, the volatile capital city of Diyala province
is home to roughly 325,000 people. The region that has been home to fruit orchards
and rural farming has been hard hit by the military conflict.
On June 19, tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers were deployed in Operation Arrowhead
Ripper to attack militants in Baquba. The ongoing operation is one of the largest
ever thus far in the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.
Diyala province is inhabited by a mix of Sunni and Shia Arabs, as well as Kurds.
The province has been openly hostile towards occupation forces, and attacks
against U.S. forces have been commonplace since early in the occupation.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, Diyala province is the fifth deadliest
of Iraq's 18 provinces for U.S. troops, with at least 186 killed there thus
After several weeks of the siege in Baquba, people were allowed in recent days
to go to work. Witnesses spoke to IPS about fierce attacks by helicopters, and
shelling of houses by U.S. tanks.
"The U.S. military bombed houses that were completely uninhabited,"
Kadhim Rajab, a 39-year-old city official told IPS. "Al-Qaeda had left
the city before the operation even began because they knew what was coming even
before we did."
But residents did speak of an al-Qaeda presence earlier. "U.S. troops
bombed a number of houses that were actually used by al-Qaeda," Ibrahim
Hameed, a 43-year-old secondary school teacher told IPS. "But there was
no resistance at all, we heard no shooting."
Ismail Aboud, a 51-year-old physician, said the U.S. military had deliberately
avoided armed clashes with militants. "It seems that the forces allowed
the terrorists to leave the battlefield in order to avoid direct military clashes,"
Abu Mohammed, a 54-year-old grocer, said U.S. troops were now moving unarmed
in the streets. "The troops appear absolutely sure that there is no resistance
Salma Waleed, manager of a primary school in the city told IPS that after 12
days of shelling by the U.S. military, some electricity and water supply has
been restored intermittently.
Waleed said U.S. soldiers had been handing out water and MREs (meals ready
to eat). "Now, we can move very freely in the streets since there is no
random shooting or kidnapping."
Professor Salim Abdulla, from the local university told IPS that U.S. soldiers
claimed to have found a room in a house where prisoners were tortured, and also
found barrels of chlorine. In recent months chlorine bombs have been used to
blow up cars.
But Abdulla added, "What is disastrous is that before the members of al-Qaeda
ran away from Qatoon (district of Baquba), they killed prisoners who had been
kidnapped for getting money from their families as ransom."
Others spoke to IPS of the damaging effects of the U.S. military cordon around
the city that was denying basic needs like medical care, food, water and security.
An expatriate program manager for an international organization, who did not
wish to be named, told IPS that "the military operations are still continuing
and the roads are still closed. One of my sources said that on Friday in Qatoon
quarter a house was bombed and an entire family was killed. Only a baby survived."
The manager told IPS that tens of thousands have fled the Qatoon area. "Because
of the closure (of roads and parts of the city) in Baquba the price of food
has increased dramatically," she said. "Earlier 50 kg of flour cost
11 dollars. Now it is 40 dollars."
Only bicycles and animal-drawn carts are being allowed to bring basic supplies
such as vegetables and fuel into the city, she said.
"Recently Iraqi police and ambulances have started removing the bodies,"
Mahdi Ameen Azawi, a 47-year-old retired Iraqi military officer who lives in
Qatoon told IPS.
"This quarter remained under siege up to now," he added. "People
suffered from the absence of electricity, water and food."
(Ahmed, IPS correspondent in Iraq's Diyala province, works in close collaboration
with Dahr Jamail, U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively
in the region)