No man’s land
November 20, 2008
BOWADISH, Iraq — Once part of the breadbasket of Diyala province, the flat, dusty plain surrounding this ghostly collection of mud huts sprouts brown, scrubby stubble and little else these days. The lifeless soil mirrors the town, empty since a terror campaign by insurgents chased residents away more than a year ago.
Across an agricultural belt in the southwest portion of the province, insurgents went village to village more than a year ago, intimidating farmers and often rigging homes with explosives and trip wires, in some cases rendering entire towns one giant bomb. Most of the bombs still lie in wait for an errant step.
The results have been deadly. In January, six U.S. troops and an Iraqi interpreter were killed when a booby-trapped house detonated in Agadat. In the past two weeks, four soldiers were wounded in two separate bombings in Diyala.
The campaign, led by al-Qaida in Iraq, coincided with a crippling drought, has also dealt a blow to agriculture in the province and strained public resources, with more than 3,000 people, many of them farmers, still displaced and often living jobless in the nearby city of Buhritz.
Many houses remain rigged, and many towns are abandoned. U.S. forces have yet to do a thorough inventory, so it’s unclear how many houses in towns like Bowadish may be booby-trapped. Troops have adjusted to the landscape and treat entering houses with much more care than they used to, said 1st Lt. Thomas Maney, of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.
"It definitely slows down the pace of your operations because you can’t just go in and clear a house — you have to approach it very methodically and systematically," he said.
The empty houses and towns have also created a no man’s land ripe for insurgents to set up shop and U.S. troops are keen to get displaced Iraqis back on their land, said Capt. Todd Tatum. Although compensation will be paid in Iraqi money, Tatum said he and other U.S. forces are working behind the scenes to speed the process along.
"I can’t get people to live in the towns, so [al-Qaida in Iraq has] got free rein," he said.
Al-Qaida in Iraq’s campaign has damaged the psyche of local residents, who remain afraid despite major security improvements in the past year.
"Everyone is a target in Iraq," said Buhritz Mayor Hassa Alwan Sael.
With the Iraqi government entering a delicate phase, taking over more of the day-to-day operation of the country but still gaining its footing, taking care of Iraqis like the ones displaced in Diyala is key to gaining legitimacy, Tatum said.
"It’s pretty tenuous right now, any amount of faith [Iraqis] have in the government," he said.
Many of the displaced people are squatting in abandoned homes in the city and there is tension between the largely rural, tribal refugees and the more cosmopolitan city dwellers, said Adnan Salman Ali, the chairman of the Buhritz Nahia Council, a local governing body. They are also straining an already overburdened public sector.
"When they come, that requires more services, more jobs, they start competing with [city residents] for jobs," he said in an office darkened by one of the city’s regular power outages.
Ali said he recently got approval to give each family who was affected 7 million Iraqi dinars, approximately $6,000. But he admits the compensation is far from a solution.
"No, it isn’t enough — you can’t build one room with 7 million dinars," he said.
The compensation also isn’t adjusted for circumstances — whether you have a family of 15 or a family of two, mud hut or mansion, you get the same amount.
There is little U.S. troops can do but help the farmers safely blow up explosive-laden homes so they can rebuild, Maney said. It’s simply too dangerous to try to disarm the maze of bombs placed in the homes.
Once farmers can safely go back to their land, they still face the daunting task of eking out a living in the midst of a terrible drought. The irrigation canals they rely on for their crops have been dry for months.
"They really have nothing to go back to," Tatum said.