Caught Between the U.S. and Al-Qaeda

BAQUBA — The major U.S. military operation in Baquba city north of Baghdad has ended, but it has left continuing suffering for residents in its wake.

The U.S. military launched Operation Arrowhead Ripper in Baquba, 50 km northeast of Baghdad, on Jun. 18. Baquba is the capital city of Iraq’s Diyala province.

The stated goal of the operation was to eradicate al-Qaeda from the city and other areas in the province. The region has seen some of the highest number of attacks on U.S. troops.

Shortly after launching the operation, the U.S. military admitted that nearly 80 percent of al-Qaeda militants had fled the area.

Residents had been looking for an end to raids and abductions by criminal gangs and sectarian death squads, but the U.S. military operation brought no relief.

“People here feel afraid because the coalition forces always push al-Qaeda out of the cities, but unfortunately they return when the troops retreat,” resident Mohammed Hulail told IPS. “So the coalition forces can provide no solution.”

A Baquba city official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS that al-Qaeda militants had already returned to parts of the city. “We are now sure that Iraqi police and army cannot defeat al-Qaeda who are well fortified in the streets and buildings.”

Residents have learnt to fear enemies on all sides. “People are the victims of this war because they are in the middle point between the American forces and the fighters of al-Qaeda,” Jabbar Ibrahim, a secondary school teacher in the city told IPS. “The fighters of al-Qaeda came to control the city, but when the U.S. troops came to fight them, they ran away, leaving civilians to face the shells and the bombs.”

Many residents complain of indiscriminate arrests through the U.S. forces’ search for al-Qaeda suspects. “Arrests are sometimes made wrongly; simple people who have nothing to do with fighting and violence were arrested, and those who were the real fighters ran away,” a resident who declined to give his name told IPS.

The Iraqi Islamic Party has accused the Multi-National Forces operating in the area of killing many people in Baquba in the early weeks of the operation.

“The operations led by the U.S. forces in western Baquba led to the death of more than 350 people, most of whom are still under the rubble,” the party said in a statement.

Many residents in this city of 300,000 say that operation Arrowhead Ripper has made living conditions worse. “We spent 12 days without water, electricity and food,” Hamid Shaaban, a 51-year-old retired city official told IPS, “And U.S. forces were of little help.”

“I have seven children,” said Shaaban. “I went to ask U.S. troops for food and water.” All he got, he said, was some bottled water. He was then sent away.

The shortage of water hit the city at the worst time of the year. “The temperature was between 45 and 51 degrees C,” an elderly woman said. “We have had very long days, it has been terrible.”

Most residents IPS spoke to said they would leave if they could, but they either lacked funds or simply did not know where to go.

“We do not have another place to go in order to leave this miserable place,” resident Kamil Abid told IPS. “All places are the same, and we have no money to start again.”

The U.S. military has often detained people who have stayed home during the attacks and searches. Several residents say a decision to stay on was often seen as a gesture of defiance.

Now almost everyone seems fed up with the violence and intimidation from all sides. “What people want is security in order to get back again to their jobs to earn their living,” said the owner of a local food store. “Providing this is the responsibility of the coalition forces and the Iraqi government.”

Suspicions abound that the U.S. forces do not really want to solve the problem. “U.S. governments always tend to create an enemy, and then fight him in order to show weak governments, like this one in Iraq, that they cannot do without the support of U.S. power,” said a retired army officer.

(*Ahmed, our correspondent in Iraq’s Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)