By Ahmed Ali*
BAQUBA, Jul 14 (IPS) - Air strikes have destroyed civilian homes rather than al-Qaeda targets under the U.S. military operation in Baquba, residents say.
But signs have emerged of an al-Qaeda presence here earlier, and some residents speak of relief that al-Qaeda has been driven out of the city by U.S. forces.
Located 50km northeast of Baghdad, the volatile capital city of Diyala province is home to roughly 325,000 people. The region that has been home to fruit orchards and rural farming has been hard hit by the military conflict.
On Jun. 19 tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers were deployed in Operation Arrowhead Ripper to attack militants in Baquba. The ongoing operation is one of the largest ever thus far in the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.
Diyala province is inhabited by a mix of Sunni and Shia Arabs, as well as Kurds. The province has been openly hostile towards occupation forces, and attacks against U.S. forces have been commonplace since early in the occupation.
According to the U.S. Department of Defence, Diyala province is the fifth deadliest of Iraq's 18 provinces for U.S. troops, with at least 186 killed there thus far.
After several weeks of the siege in Baquba, people were allowed in recent days to go to work. Witnesses spoke to IPS about fierce attacks by helicopters, and shelling of houses by U.S. tanks.
"The U.S. military bombed houses that were completely uninhabited," Kadhim Rajab, a 39-year-old city official told IPS. "Al-Qaeda had left the city before the operation even began because they knew what was coming even before we did."
But residents did speak of an al-Qaeda presence earlier. "U.S. troops bombed a number of houses that were actually used by al-Qaeda," Ibrahim Hameed, a 43-year-old secondary school teacher told IPS. "But there was no resistance at all, we heard no shooting."
Ismail Aboud, a 51-year-old physician, said the U.S. military had deliberately avoided armed clashes with militants. "It seems that the forces allowed the terrorists to leave the battlefield in order to avoid direct military clashes," he said.
Abu Mohammed, a 54-year-old grocer, said U.S. troops were now moving unarmed in the streets. "The troops appear absolutely sure that there is no resistance to face."
Salma Waleed, manager of a primary school in the city told IPS that after 12 days of shelling by the U.S. military, some electricity and water supply has been restored intermittently.
Waleed said U.S. soldiers had been handing out water and MREs (meals ready to eat). "Now, we can move very freely in the streets since there is no random shooting or kidnapping."
Professor Salim Abdulla, from the local university told IPS that U.S. soldiers claimed to have found a room in a house where prisoners were tortured, and also found barrels of chlorine. In recent months chlorine bombs have been used to blow up cars.
But Abdulla added, "What is disastrous is that before the members of al-Qaeda ran away from Qatoon (district of Baquba), they killed prisoners who had been kidnapped for getting money from their families as ransom."
Others spoke to IPS of the damaging effects of the U.S. military cordon around the city that was denying basic needs like medical care, food, water and security.
An expatriate programme manager for an international organisation, who did not wish to be named, told IPS that "the military operations are still continuing and the roads are still closed. One of my sources said that on Friday in Qatoon quarter a house was bombed and an entire family was killed. Only a baby survived."
The manager told IPS that tens of thousands have fled the Qatoon area. "Because of the closure (of roads and parts of the city) in Baquba the price of food has increased dramatically," she said. "Earlier 50 kg of flour cost 11 dollars. Now it is 40 dollars."
Only bicycles and animal-drawn carts are being allowed to bring basic supplies such as vegetables and fuel into the city, she said.
"Recently Iraqi police and ambulances have started removing the bodies," Mahdi Ameen Azawi, a 47-year-old retired Iraqi military officer who lives in Qatoon told IPS.
"This quarter remained under siege up to now," he added. "People suffered from the absence of electricity, water and food."
(*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)