BAQUBA — The much touted “surge” of U.S. troops in Baquba has caused more problems that it has solved, residents say.
Baquba, capital city of Iraq’s Diyala province located 65 km northeast of Baghdad, has long been a volatile city plagued by rampant violence and administrative chaos.
In January this year, the Bush administration announced a “surge” of 20,000 additional U.S. troops to be sent into Baghdad, Diyala and al-Anbar province (to the west of Baghdad) to increase security.
The total number of U.S. troops in Iraq is now 169,000, the highest through the occupation. This is augmented by at least 180,000 private personnel through contracts paid for by the U.S. government. Estimates of the total number of mercenaries in Iraq vary between 50,000 and 70,000.
But despite such numbers, Diyala is controlled by criminal gangs, militias, al-Qaeda like forces, and only on occasion – as at present — by U.S. forces. Between all of these, normal life has come to a halt.
Amidst the fear and violence, streets remain empty, even of Iraqi army or police.
“All of my neighbours initially hailed the U.S. surge in the city,” Jabbar Kadhim, a local grocer told IPS. “We see no hope in the (Iraqi) government.” U.S. forces took over the entire city and blocked all roads.”
Given the high presence of the U.S. military, security seems better for now. But facing restrictions of movement, in the middle of high unemployment, people also fear the greater violence that could return once the troops withdraw.
“We felt safer seeing the U.S. army, but we know, and the Americans know that militants come back to the city once the U.S. army retreats,” said a resident who would not give his name. Others say that the U.S. ‘surge’ has brought its own problems – and is motivated.
Residents have become suspicious of all moves. “In order to create a reason for the coalition forces to stay in Iraq, they create an enemy and fight him,” said Mudhafer Razaq, who has lost his trading business. “They direct the militants to destroy the city, and then they come to fight the militants. This way, people will ask for the help of the coalition forces.”
Such suspicion is common. One resident said he saw a group of militants kill a taxi driver at a fake checkpoint they had set up “while a U.S. helicopter was flying right over them.”
Mohammed Jabur, a lorry driver, told IPS a similar story. “I passed by a false checkpoint set up by militants; all of them had covered their faces and were carrying weapons. I saw a helicopter flying over them; is it difficult for the pilot to see them? Everybody knows that militants are supported by the coalition forces one way or another.”
Not even the relative improvement in security is reassuring. “People are still worried that the militants may return, and second, there is no normal life with this huge surge of the U.S. army,” Bashir Mutasher, a political analyst in the city told IPS. “People are allowed to move only in the main street in the city, which is full of checkpoints. All other streets are closed.”
Mutasher added, “Every car is inspected at each checkpoint. It is not practical to inspect thousands of cars a day. For this reason, people are obliged to walk to their jobs or homes.”
“We are unable to move, or get to our jobs,” Tariq Bidaa, a local electrician, told IPS. “We were forced to keep to our homes for more than a month. My family was in need to so many things, but there was no money.”
Such difficulties continue. “In Baquba, there are three small bridges which connect the two sides of the city; two of them are used by the U.S. army and all the other people are obliged to use the third, so one may have to spend an hour to cross the bridge,” Sadeq Hazber, a 44-year-old primary school teacher told IPS. “The one bridge has a large number of checkpoints; there is one every 500 metres or less.”
All this is bad enough; but it could get worse if the militants return.
(*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)