Residents Struggle to Survive, In and Out of Ramadi

RAMADI — As the threat of a giant U.S. military operation in Ramadi lingers and sporadic clashes plague the city daily, residents struggle to cope, both inside and outside the sealed city.

A week spent in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province west of Baghdad, reveals that residents are suffering from lack of water, electricity, cooking gas and medical supplies for the hospitals. The streets are eerily empty, and it appears that many people have now left the city, although possibly as many as 150,000 still remain in their homes, either because they are too afraid to leave or they have nowhere to go.

“We will survive anyway,” Um Qassim, a middle-aged housewife with six children, told IPS. “It is Allah who gives life and he is the only one able to take it away.”

Despite the horrible conditions here, with armed resistance groups controlling vast swathes of the city, and other areas subject to frequent shooting from U.S. snipers on the rooftops of houses, she said that people should be grateful to their god whatever happens to them, adding, “Those Americans will leave.”

The operation is part of a renewed crackdown on what the Pentagon says is a stronghold of the Sunni Arab resistance. As the threat of an all-out U.S. attack on the city looms, Imad Al-Muhammadi with the Iraqi Red Crescent in Ramadi told IPS, “Ramadi is a lot more difficult than the Fallujah crisis because people cannot flee to Baghdad and many other cities due to the threat of sectarian death squads, so it is very difficult to provide them with safe shelter at a reasonable distance from the military operations.”

Muhammadi said that many of the families who had left are facing “horrible living conditions in tents, abandoned schools and are staying under any roof that protects them from the burning summer sun.”

“There is no positive sign on the American side that shows a different solution from those of Fallujah and other cities which have been ‘deleted’ in order to be ‘liberated’,” he added. “Civilians, as usual, are the ones living the hardships of occupation and definitely the ones dying in vain.”

According to Maurizio Mascia, programme manager for the Italian Consortium of Solidarity (ICS), a non-governmental group based in Amman, Jordan that provides relief to refugees in Iraq, minor clashes were reported on Monday, mainly in Al-Qadisiya, Al-Mala’ab, Al-Andalus, Al-Aramel, Al-Aziziya, Al-Qattana, Al-Soufiya, the city centre (close to Abd Al-Jaleel mosque) and 30th of July.

Additionally, U.S. and Iraqi forces are reported to be attacking the eastern side of the city in an effort to push into Ramadi.

ICS reports that the number of checkpoints and the frequency of Multi-National Forces (MNF) patrols have increased since the beginning of the crisis, making it likely that both the MNF/Iraqi forces and insurgents are preparing themselves for a heightened battle.

“The population is still leaving the city and the number of families in displacement traced in Anbar by ICS monitors is close to 3,200 now,” Mascia told IPS by telephone. “The new IDPs [internally displaced persons] are mainly approaching Rutba and Al-Baghdadi, while Heet remains the main destination of Ramadi IDPs.” He said about 1,000 IDP families are present now in Fallujah and surrounding areas.

However, he added that “Most of the families are avoiding approaching Fallujah due to the complicated procedure enforced by MNF to enter the city.” Mascia said that the number of families recorded by ICS is almost certainly low, since his group only logs families who get direct relief aid from their workers.

“The Americans, instead of attacking the city all at once like they’ve done in their previous operations in cities like Fallujah and Al-Qa’im, are using helicopters and ground troops to attack one district at a time in Ramadi,” Mascia told IPS from his office in Amman.

“Access to Ramadi is extremely difficult,” he continued. “The checkpoints are set up at the two bridges and make it extremely difficult to access the city by vehicle. The only available option to avoid the checkpoints is the desert way heading to Al-Ta’meem district.”

“The main dangers for the population are the MNF at the checkpoints and the snipers: both usually shoot at any movement that they consider dangerous — causing many victims among civilians.”

According to Mascia, services at the main hospital, as well as health clinics, is down to a “low standard due to the security situation and lack of medical supplies”.

And similar to the tactics used during the U.S. assault on Fallujah in November 2004, the U.S. military continues to use loudspeakers to ask people to either hand over “insurgents” who are present in their neighbourhoods, or to evacuate their homes and flee the city. ICS reports that some of the messages have specifically made reference to what happened in Fallujah.

Correspondents with the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in Baghdad recently reported on the use of snipers by the U.S. military in Ramadi: “People in Ramadi… estimate that about 70 percent of the city’s population have fled in the last week, many of them holding white flags for fear of being shot at by Marine snipers.”

The IPS correspondent in Ramadi also witnessed snipers shooting at civilians in the city.

“The ongoing violence between U.S. Marines and the insurgents, air strikes, and outages in the water, electricity and phone networks have already made life untenable,” adds the IWPR report. “Ramadi residents say U.S. troops regularly take over houses to fight the insurgents, and combatants on both sides have been seen using rooftops as sniper positions.”

The Association of Muslim Scholars, based in Baghdad, has encouraged the residents of Heet, which is near Ramadi, to host those fleeing the city. Some more vulnerable families are also staying in mosques that are offering shelter to refugees.

An IWPR reporter in Baghdad wrote that a 17-year-old student who fled Ramadi with his parents, Ghayath Salim al-Dulaimi, said his relatives had been prevented from leaving by U.S. air strikes two days earlier.

“Our neighbourhood has emptied completely — there’s no one left,” he told IWPR. “People are leaving in droves and there aren’t any services at all. You can’t get to hospital because movement is restricted.”

Responding to a question about the situation in Ramadi at a Jun. 15 news briefing, Brig. Gen. Carter Ham from the Pentagon said, “I think those who are looking for perhaps a large-scale offensive may be somewhat off the mark. And I think what we will see increasingly is the Iraqis finding ways to increasingly establish the presence of Iraqi security forces, and we’ll help them do that in any way that we can.”