RAMADI — A semblance of calm belies an undercurrent of violence, detentions and fear across Iraq’s volatile al-Anbar province.
The province — which occupies one-third of Iraq’s geographic area — has been a bane to authorities since the beginning of the occupation.
“The Americans talked about our province as the deadliest enemy, and suddenly they are marketing us as their best friends,” Sa’doon Khalifa, an independent politician in the capital city of al-Anbar Province, Ramadi — 110 km west of Baghdad — told IPS. “They were lying to their people and to the world in both cases as we were never terrorists nor their friends now,” he stressed.
Khalifa explained that resistance fighters in al-Anbar did fight occupation forces, but now they are standing down from launching new attacks against U.S. forces.
This is due in large part to U.S. military payments to collaborating tribal sheikhs — already totalling over 17 million dollars. The money funds tribal fighters who are paid 300 dollars per month to patrol their areas, particularly against foreign fighters.
The military refers to these men as “Concerned Local Citizens,” “Awakening Force,” or simply “volunteers,” even though it is well known that most of them used to carry out attacks against the occupation forces.
“Those Americans thought they would decrease the resistance attacks by separating the people of Iraq into sects and tribes,” a 32-year-old man from Ramadi — speaking on terms of anonymity — told IPS, “They know they are going deeper into the moving sand, but the collaborators are fooling the Americans right now, and will in the end use this strategy against them.”
As of Wednesday, the U.S. military counts 77,000 of these fighters. It plans to add another 10,000. Eighty-two percent of the fighters are Sunni.
In spite of this mass recruitment, sporadic attacks are continuing against U.S. forces in the province.
“It is true that hundreds of fighters were killed or detained by the so-called Awakening Forces, but there are thousands who will never quit fighting until this occupation is ended,” Ali Khamees, a former major of the Iraqi army told IPS in Ramadi.
Khamees believes that the de-escalation is a “new technique by the resistance to reduce the suffering of people in al-Anbar and move somewhere else to fight.”
Attacks against U.S. forces have increased in other Iraqi provinces — like Diyala, Saladin and Mosul.
The U.S. army reported dozens of soldiers killed throughout November while local reports insisted that the U.S. casualties are much higher than declared.
A female suicide bomber wounded seven U.S. soldiers Wednesday in Baquba – – the capital city of the volatile Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad — when she detonated her explosive vest near the troops.
On Tuesday in the same city, another suicide bomber detonated his explosives-filled vest in front of the police headquarters — killing six people and wounding seven, according to Iraqi police.
Underscoring how tenuous the peace in al-Anbar is, on Nov. 22 a car bomb exploded in Ramadi, killing at least six people in what was one of the deadliest attacks there in recent months.
Ramadi police officials said the bomb exploded near the city’s courthouse in the late morning detonated by a suicide bomber. At least 30 civilians were injured, Iraqi police officials said.
“I was just leaving the bank 80 metres away from the explosion the moment it took place,” Doctor Ahmed Al- Aani told IPS in Ramadi, “I did not notice any car coming to the spot, so I think it was parked there. The strange thing was that an American Army convoy passed exactly thirty seconds after the blast. The thing I found even stranger was that they passed without any action like closing the area or trying to help the wounded.”
Another two eyewitnesses told the same story with slight differences in details like the number of casualties and how many seconds later the U.S. military convoy passed.
Iraqis across the province are complaining about harsh tactics being meted out by the new “Awakening Forces” supported by the U.S.
“We will behead anyone who carries a gun in this province,” Wussam Hardan, a senior leader of the Awakening Forces in Ramadi told sources very close to IPS in the city. “No court, no lawyers, no nothing. We have our own ways to get those criminals to confess,” Hardan said.
The people of the province fear the recent developments, despite the relative improvement in the security situation.
“It is quieter because the Americans stopped many of their activities in al- Anbar,” Shakir Mahmood, a human rights activist in Ramadi told IPS — on condition that his false name be used. “There were so many arrests by U.S. forces, police and the Awakening during the past month and we cannot even talk about it because we feel threatened by all three of them,” he said.
“So many of the detainees are well known to be innocent people taken into custody according to false information by others who have a personal feud with them or their families,” Mahmood added, “It is the same old story being repeated and God knows what is going to happen next.”
Arrests are being made after individuals are accused of being al-Qaeda members or of having links with Iran. Thousands have been detained for a year or more without any court procedures, while the police and the Awakening militias have executed many others.
On Nov. 13 the International Committee for the Red Cross estimated that there are around 60,000 people detained in U.S. and Iraqi prisons in the country.
(*Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)