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

Ramadi: Mass Exodus Amid Rising Tensions

Western Iraqi city’s population flees ahead of expected onslaught by United States forces.
By Yasin al-Dulaimi
Residents of the city of Ramadi are fleeing to escape a worsening security situation as the United States military steps up operations against insurgents there.

People in Ramadi, capital of the western Iraqi province of Anbar, estimate that about 70 per cent of the city’s population has fled in the last week, many of them holding white flags for fear of being shot at by Marine snipers.

Residents reported that US troops blasted messages through loudspeakers on June 13, telling them to leave and warning of house-to-house searches for weapons and militants.

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

"The situation is difficult and tragic," said Samiaa Awwad, a 68-year-old who fled Ramadi to Jazeera, 20 kilometres east of Ramadi, with her daughters and sons.

Many other people are still “trapped in their houses, and dozens have been killed", she said.

Mohammed Latif, a member of Ramadi's provincial council who has gone to Baghdad to stay with relatives, said that in the last few days he had witnessed about 1,500 families leaving the city, and the exodus was still continuing.

Ghayath Salim al-Dulaimi, a 17-year-old student, also went to Baghdad with his parents, but said other relatives had been prevented from leaving by American air strikes two days ago. He said that like most school students, he had not finished the school year, and reported that Anbar University was shut down as well.

"Our neighbourhood has emptied completely – there’s no one left," he said. "People are leaving in droves and there aren't any services at all. You can't get to hospital because movement is restricted."

Many have fled to other towns in Anbar including Falluja, Haditha and Jazeera, as well as to Baghdad. Emad Hamza Abbas, who chairs Haditha’s provincial council, said the authorities there had provided 200 tents and drinking water for displaced Ramadi residents, and were sheltering other families in schools.

A spokesman for the US-led Coalition did not respond to IWPR’s requests for comment.

Civilians across Anbar province have suffered disproportionately from the years of conflict. The New York Times reported last week that of the 19.7 million US dollars the Pentagon has paid out as compensation for civilian deaths and injuries and damaged property, 9.5 million has gone to Anbar residents.

US forces have regularly clashed with insurgents in Ramadi since the fall of the Baathist regime in 2003, but the rebel forces are also divided among themselves.

Iraqi militant groups describing themselves as the "Iraqi Islamic Nationalist Resistance" principally target American troops, but they also have fought against the al-Qaeda in Iraq network, whose leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike last week. His followers often fought on the streets of Ramadi and were believed to be responsible for brutal attacks that cost hundreds of lives there.

Although fighting has intensified over the last week, some militants denied that their attacks had anything to do with Zarkawi’s death.

Abu Omar, a leader of the Islamic Resistance Organisation for the Liberation of Iraq, said his group had increased its attacks on US forces, but said these actions were unrelated to Zarqawi, whom he opposed.

"We have attacked an American patrol, and we will continue the jihad against the Americans, not against our own people," said Abu Omar.

"We don't just fight the Americans - we fight extremists and anyone who distorts the honourable resistance. As Iraqis, we don't need a Zarqawi to lead us."

Ramadi residents sympathetic to the insurgents say that extremist Islamic groups such as al-Qaeda made things worse when they started targeting police checkpoints in 2004, leaving most cities in the so-called Sunni triangle without law and order. Provincial council members and Sunni Arab leaders were also targeted by the extremists.

While the Iraqi army is believed to be working with US forces in Ramadi, there are no police or state security forces in the area. The city police force dissolved about a year and a half ago after members were killed and threatened.

In January 2006, about 160 men signing up for the Iraqi army were killed by a suicide bomber. Tribal leaders and the US military had agreed to work together to create police and an army unit made up of local residents.

Members of the Iraqi army and customs police have also been killed and beheaded in Ramadi. Zarqawi claimed responsibility by sticking leaflets on their bodies, and no one dared move them for several days for fear that they too would be killed.

"Anyone who criticises al-Qaeda, removes a leaflet, or doesn't cooperate is considered a spy and killed immediately," said Latif.

He cited the killings of Sheikh Nasir al-Fahdawi, a tribal leader assassinated after hosting former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari last year, and provincial council member Haj Khidhir, believed to have been killed by al-Qaeda in Iraq.

There are concerns in Ramadi that Zarqawi's replacement, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, will prove even tougher and more extreme, and that his influence could lead to the destruction of what is left of their town.

"Will the beheading of people like chickens ever end?" asked a Ramadi man who would not give his name because of security concerns. "I don't think so, because Zarqawi has passed on the knife to other butchers."

Yasin al-Dulaimi is a Ramadi-based IWPR contributor. Daud Salman is an IWPR contributor in Baghdad.