Where Al-Qaeda Reigns

DAMASCUS — Refugees from Baquba city who have now found shelter in Damascus describe their hometown as a “dead city” where armed men roam the streets and al-Qaeda reigns.

Baquba, capital city of Iraq’s Diyala province is located 50km northeast of Baghdad on the Diyala river. In 2002 the estimated population was 280,000. The city has been inhabited continuously since pre-Islamic times and is the trade centre for Iraq’s commercial orange groves.

The city become a hot spot of resistance from early on in the occupation. It has been torn apart in fighting between occupation forces and the Iraqi resistance — and also between various militia groups and al-Qaeda, its fleeing residents say.

Al-Qaeda has emerged as a distinct new group, refugees from the city say.

By the end of 2006 the city was largely under the control of Sunni resistance groups, but by early 2007 residents report that al-Qaeda has formed a larger presence in the city.

As a result more than half the people in the city have fled, refugees say.

“Life in Baquba nowadays is unbearable,” Aziz Abdulla, an unemployed university professor from Baquba who arrived in Damascus last week told IPS. “There is no security at all. Violence is increasing day after day because there is no control from the government and no real existence of coalition forces there. Terrorists and other fighters rule the city. Baquba is a city of terror.”

Abdulla said that killing and kidnapping are rampant. “We have all become used to seeing dead bodies in the streets. I’ve seen too many. When we see them, nobody touches the body because if you do you are killed by gunmen. They watch for who touches the body, and kill that person right then or later.”

No Western journalist dares go to Baquba.

“I think well over half of our city has left, and those who remain never leave their homes,” Abdulla said. “Those who are left sit in their homes and wait for their death. They may take their fate from a terrorist entering their house, or a car bomb, or a shooting.”

Baquba General Hospital is in a state of collapse, refugees say. Dr. Ahmed Shibad, a 30- year-old doctor from the hospital fled Baquba a month ago and now lives in the al- Qudsiya neighbourhood on the outskirts of Damascus with tens of thousands of other Iraqi refugees.

“I left Baquba because of the terrorists and the Iraqi Army. The conditions at my hospital were very, very bad,” he told IPS. “We had no supplies, and the Iraqi forces occupied the hospital and used it as an observation post, and use the roof as a sniper platform.”

He, like Abdulla, said al-Qaeda was largely in control of the city, and that U.S. forces were doing little to stop them. But his main complaint was the Iraqi forces.

“The Iraqi forces determine who enters the hospital or not, and this causes a big problem for the doctors,” he said. “They take many innocent people from the hospital. Our morgue in the hospitals can holds 12 corpses, but it is always over-filled.”

Dr. Shibad said prior to the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, Diyala province had 600 doctors. The last he knew, he said, there were only 124 and the number is decreasing each month.

One of the U.S. bases in the city is referred to as Camp Boom by the U.S. soldiers stationed there because it takes so many attacks from armed groups, refugees said.

Another U.S. Forward Operating Base (FOB) called FOB Scunion is separated from the larger Camp Freedom I by a highway known as ‘RPG (rocket propelled grenade) Alley’ because of the many attacks against coalition forces there.

“Americans only control one kilometre of road, which is the main road where the governor’s office and court building are in central Baquba, and they rarely run patrols in the city because they are attacked every time,” a refugee who just arrived from Baquba told IPS.

He asked to be referred to as Haida for fear of reprisal attacks from armed groups, al- Qaeda or the U.S. forces. “Every day we see attacks against the Americans. This is because the coalition forces created their own enemies by being so rough on the people of Baquba since the beginning of the occupation.”

Haida said that control of the city is shared between Iraqi resistance groups who are fighting coalition forces, and “the other group is al-Qaeda.” Either way, he said, – men carrying guns control the majority of Baquba.”

Despite its small size, Diyala province has seen the sixth largest number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq among the 18 provinces in the country. According to the U.S. Department of Defence, at least 144 troops have been killed there, 44 of them this year.

Haida and Abdulla, who come from different areas of Baquba, told IPS separately that the city has almost completely shut down now. There are no markets open and those who remain live on locally grown vegetables and fruit.

“There is nothing transported from Baghdad because there is no way to travel there due to the unofficial checkpoints controlled by militias,” said Haida. “If you pass through one and you are the wrong sect of Islam, you are killed immediately. People have stopped going to Baghdad. We are cut off.”

Abdulla said petrol is too expensive for most people, and inflation is “out of control.” Petrol is in any case rarely available since “tankers can no longer reach the city from Baghdad.”

Money counts for little, he said. “There is no money at the banks because bringing the money from Baghdad to Baquba is too dangerous. The government cannot control it, and the money will be stolen by so many different groups of people. Our city has become a dead city.”