By Ahmed Ali*
BAQUBA, Jul 23 (IPS) - Life in the violence-plagued capital city of Iraq's Diyala province has become a struggle for day-to-day survival.
Heavy U.S military operations, sectarian death squads and al-Qaeda militants have combined to make normal life in Baquba, 50 km northeast of Baghdad, all but impossible.
Movement from the city to another destination is extremely dangerous. Kidnappings have become rampant in a lawless city where government control is only a mirage.
Lack of security and mobility have meant severe shortages of fuel, food, medical supplies and other necessities.
The central market in the city of about 325,000 has vanished. It is not just the shopping that is gone. People used to meet acquaintances in the market to socialise and sometimes do business.
The ongoing violence has ended all that. The market has become scattered around city districts. Many shop owners have reopened smaller shops within their houses, and abandoned their business locations.
About two or three persons have been killed or abducted in the market daily on average in recent weeks. This had started to happen even before the U.S. military operation Arrowhead Ripper was launched last month with the intention of targeting al-Qaeda forces. Now residents say it is much worse.
"The troops have closed all the outlets from the city, and never allow cars to move," Amir Ayad, a 51-year-old assistant professor in the sciences college at Diyala University told IPS. "To get my college, I have to get a cart as other people do. It is five kilometres, and it is better than walking."
"For the final examinations which were held unfortunately during this period of military operations, students had to walk hours to get to the exam centre," Prof. Majeed Abid told IPS. "They were exhausted and sweating."
Animal-drawn carts have now become a new business in Baquba. Most of these are drawn by donkeys, and each cart carries 10-15 passengers who pay two to three dollars a journey.
"Every day I bring vegetables four kilometres by cart and pay 25-35 dollars for this," 29-year-old Adil Omran told IPS. "For this reason, the prices have increased tremendously."
"A tomato, which is grown commonly in Iraq, is usually around six cents," said Mahmood Ali, a retired teacher. "Nowadays, we buy it for 1.25 dollar. Families now tend to buy one or two bags of potatoes (30 kilos each) because they cannot afford the increasing prices of other vegetables."
Complicating matters is the already unsteady disbursement of salaries due to the volatile security situation.
"Officials used to receive their salaries every month, but for a year and a half now we receive our salaries only every 50-70 days," Kadhim Raad, a 44-year-old official in the municipality of Baquba told IPS.
"The staff at the Ministry of Education have not received their salaries for three months because no money is available in the banks," Sara Latif, an official in the finance department of the Directorate General of Education told IPS.
People are now looking for ways to leave this city of continuing violence, delayed salaries, lack of jobs, lack of open markets, closed factories, no functioning municipal work, and very little farming due to lack of water and electricity.
The average house in Baquba gets one or two hours of electricity a day. It is not uncommon for three or four days to pass without a minute of electricity.
Most people have bought small generators, but lack of fuel often makes it impossible to run these. Before the U.S.-led invasion, a litre of petrol in Iraq cost five cents; today in Baquba it is nearly two dollars.
There are no functioning fuel stations. Instead, people buy 20-litre jugs.
"People have forgotten there is something called a petrol station," Hamid Alwan, a 46-year-old taxi driver told IPS. "The owners of petrol stations sell the tankers of petrol before they are brought to Baquba to make more money."
And all this is less than the biggest concern – to find a way just to stay safe.
(*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) (END/2007)