AMMAN — As with the siege of Fallujah six months back, U.S. claims over the siege of the Iraqi town Al Qa’im are being challenged now by independent sources.
The U.S. military claims a ”successful” end to the weeklong operation earlier this month around Al-Qa’im, a town about 320km west of Baghdad close to the Syrian border. The operation was launched against what the U.S. military saw as the presence of Al-Qaeda fighters in the town.
Iraqi civilians and doctors in the area say no foreign fighters were present in the town. Al Qa’im and surrounding areas have suffered great destruction, and many in the town population of 110,000 were killed, they say.
Abu Ahmed, a resident of Al-Qa’im, told IPS on telephone that ”all the fighters here are Iraqis from this area.”
He said continuing violations by U.S. soldiers had provoked people into confronting the occupying forces. He said troops had been raiding homes, sending women into the streets without their hijabs and entering areas where women sleep.
”The fighters are just local people who refuse to be treated like dogs,” he said. ”Nobody wants the Americans here.”
Abd al-Khaliq al-Rawi, head of communications for the local government in Al-Qa’im said on Al-Jazeera television that the fighters were all local Iraqis. ”We have not seen any outsiders. The fighters are from the area. They are resisting the occupation.”
Al Qa’im and surrounding areas were besieged by U.S. forces for a week by about 1,000 troops backed by warplanes, tanks and helicopters as a part of ‘Operation Matador’. The U.S. military claims the operation was a success in that 125 ”militants” were killed in an effort to search for followers of the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
But accounts of the operation from non-governmental organisations (NGOs), Iraqi doctors and civilians differ greatly from those put forward by the military.
”Qa’im is still surrounded by the MNF (Multinational Forces), and we’ve yet to get any humanitarian workers into the city,” Daunia Pavone, programme manager for the Italian NGO consortium Solidarity told IPS in Amman, Jordan. The bombing had stopped, she said, but they did not know when it might resume and were unable therefore to send aid workers into the area.
”The Americans said they could not get inside the city,” Pavone said. ”Once the Americans surrounded the city nobody was able to get out. So we are very concerned that there are a large number of civilian casualties inside the city.”
Pavone said that about 12,000 Iraqis had left Al-Qaim, and that the rest had remained trapped inside. ”I think there will be lots of civilian casualties,” she said.
At least nine soldiers were killed and more than 40 wounded during the siege, according to the U.S. military.
The U.S. military has made no statement on civilian casualties, but witnesses say scores of innocent Iraqis were killed.
The city centre ”has been almost completely destroyed,” the director of Al-Qa’im hospital Dr. Hamdi Al-Alusi told Al-Jazeera television. He said the casualties included many women, children and elderly people, and appealed to humanitarian organisations to intervene quickly.
”Ambulances were prevented from moving and the medical teams have left the city centre because it has been destroyed,” Al-Alusi said during the siege. Water and electricity networks have been destroyed and ”there are scores of wounded people and scores of victims who cannot reach the hospital or anywhere else. We pray to god and implore the whole world to look into what happened to Al-Qa’im and adjacent cities.”
Rafa Asahab, a Syrian who lives in Abu Kemal village on the Syrian border told IPS he saw some of the effects of the siege. ”At least 100 civilians in Al-Qa’im have been killed,” he said. U.S. warplanes also entered Syrian airspace many times, he said.
Eyewitnesses said U.S. jets and helicopters also attacked surrounding Al-Karabilah, Al-Jazirah and Al-Quaydat towns. ”Medical staff confirmed the killing of civilians by helicopter gunfire,” Dr. Muhammad Abud reported on Al-Sharqiyah television. He said ambulance crews had difficulty retrieving some bodies that had been ripped apart.
Adil al-Rawi, an eyewitness in Al-Qa’im said on Al-Arabiya television during the siege that U.S. forces had shelled the hospital. ”They are using warplanes, mortar shells and tanks to shell the city indiscriminately, hurt citizens and bomb the houses with warplanes.”
Many people in the towns need medical aid, and the thousands of residents who fled need water, food, tents and blankets, Pavone said.
The siege came as violence and bloodshed continue to escalate in Iraq amidst rising opposition to U.S. forces. Tensions rose further when anti-occupation Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr made another demand Monday that the United States withdraw from Iraq. Al-Sadr had launched a bloody Intifadah (militant uprising) against occupation forces last summer in Najaf, Hilla and the Sadr City area of Baghdad.
Last week the new Iraqi government announced a continuation of the state of emergency (excepting in the Kurdish region in the north). Emergency was declared on Nov. 7, 2004. Most of the country has remained under martial law ever since, despite elections in January this year.