Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Militants Taking Control of Baquba

Insurgents are increasingly calling the shots in this Sunni stronghold.
By Nesir Kadhim
Life has deserted Baquba. The capital of Diyala province has become a new stronghold for militants who came from Ramadi in Anbar province after residents, tribal figures and local authorities there took action against them.



Schools and most government institutions are now shut in this Sunni city 65 kilometres from Baghdad. Markets and many stores have been burnt to the ground. Cars and pedestrians are a rare sight, and last week five professors from Diyala province were shot dead by unidentified militants.



Abu Ahmed, who refused to disclose his full name, and his wife, a teacher in a village near Baquba, both quit their jobs although they have to raise three children. He used to guard a fuel station in Baghdad but after “being chased by militants” on the Baghdad-Baquba highway decided to stay at home.



“My children don’t go to school. My wife teaches them at home,” he said. “The situation in Baquba is terrible. There is no business at all after militants took control of the big market, now the most dangerous place here.”



The killing of Iraq’s al-Qaeda leader, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, last June in a town near Baquba only made the situation worse with insurgents tightening their grip on the city - the home of Sunni tribal figures and supporters of Saddam Hussein, which is well known for its resistance to Iraqi authorities and American troops alike.



Clashes between Sunni insurgents on one side and US troops, Iraqi forces and Shia militias on the other, occur on a daily basis.



In Buhruz, east of Baquba, militants attacked a police office and raised their banner over the building after they killed all the officers.



Sunni militants have expelled members of the Shia minority in Baquba. In reply, Sadrists opened an office here but two weeks ago it was bombed and is now deserted. Members of the Mahdi army militia responded by setting up checkpoints on the Baghdad-Baquba highway and are said to be arresting and abusing Sunni Baquba residents who take to the road.



All schools, institutes and universities are closed with students wondering when this will come to end. “My school is down and I can’t go there any more,” said ten-year-old Mohammed Asim. “It’s really sad.”



In mid November, militants targeted the al-Amin primary school where police set up a monitoring post on the roof to watch movements of militants. They killed the four officers there and blew up the whole building.



Iraqi police and security patrols try to maintain a presence in the city, yet militants still roam freely in daylight, launching attacks with mortars and roadside bombs. US troops are rarely seen as they are a prime target, especially in the highly dangerous neighborhoods of Mafraq and Hai al-Mualimin.



Ala Muwafaq, a civil servant at the Diyala governorate office, says that militants speed away from his neighbourhood wearing masks and come back later “as if they accomplished a mission”.



Local authorities say that they are doing their best but lack public cooperation. Hafiz al-Jiburi, Baquba assistant governor, said, “We seriously and loyally work to secure the province but the problem is lack of cooperation with the public who don’t report about militants.”



The affiliation of many Baquba residents to the former Ba’ath party hampers police efforts, while the extremists reject any dialogue.



“Many Baquba residents held high military posts and are jobless today, so they stand against us,” said al-Jiburi. “We tried to make a deal with militant groups but we failed.”



Rumours that people arrested by Iraqi troops are later killed either by Shia staff of the interior ministry or by Shia militias further fuel public suspicion of the local authorities.



The young in Baquba are particularly supportive of the militants and boycotted the 2005 provincial council elections and the constitutional referendum. They praise the insurgents as “mujahedin” fighting a jihad and consider it their responsibility to control neighbourhoods and chase the Iraqi army and police and their main target - the US troops.



“Baquba is a symbol of resistance and Americans will be kicked out by the honourable mujahedin,” said Saad Adnan, a farmer. “We are with the mujahedin. They are heroes and history will remember Baquba’s fight against the occupation.”



A militant, wearing a black mask and carrying a Kalashnikov, interviewed by an IWPR reporter in Baquba, said, “Thank God, we are forging ahead with our goals. We fight the occupation and kill every Iraqi policeman or soldier that protects the Americans. If it was not for them, the Americans would have been terminated and kicked out.”



Abu Ahmed has different things on his mind. He worries how he can get by from one day to the next. “Prices are going up and I have only a small amount of money to spend. I don’t know how long we can go on like this,” he said.



Nesir Kadhim is an IWPR contributor in Iraq.