Published on Tuesday, November 18, 2003 by the lndependent/UK
Americans Turn Tikrit into Iraq's Own West Bank
By Phil Reeves in Awja
It is the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but transported to Iraq. A town is imprisoned by razor wire. The entrance is guarded by soldiers, protected by sand bags, concrete barricades and a machine-gun nest.
Only those people with an identification card issued by the occupation authorities are allowed in or, more importantly, out.
"Hey, this is just like Gaza, isn't it?" a fiery-eyed young Iraqi policeman shouted at us from behind the chest-high, three-layer wire coils which separate his home from the rest of the surrounding dead-flat Iraqi landscape, Sunni Triangle heartland. "We're not happy. Not happy!"
This is Awja, the wealthy enclave outside Tikrit where Saddam Hussein grew up. It has long been a center of pro-Saddam, anti-American sentiments, home to the ousted dictator's closest tribesmen, his cronies and his relatives. The United States military says it is also the source of persistent violent insurgency.
The Americans, accompanied by selected journalists and cameramen, have been conducting dozens of operations in the past few days, mounting house-to-house raids, and firing off several 500lb satellite-guided missiles in an effort to show the world and the guerrillas that they are now getting tough.
Early yesterday in Tikrit, American forces attacked what they said were "enemy" positions with tank and mortar fire, saying they killed six insurgents. Some 2,000 troops also took part in a raid on a 20-block residential area in Baghdad, emerging with only with a few dozen guns. In Awja, the crackdown is less photogenic, but as significant. On 30 October, two rifle companies from the US army's 4th Infantry Division turned up at night and sealed off the town.
"We were asleep," recalled Mohammed Shakr al-Nassiri, 33, a shopkeeper. "We did hear some work going on during the night. When we got up, we found all this barbed wire around us. We don't understand the point of it. Why us? There's been resistance all over Iraq." In the case of Awja, the Americans appear to have resorted to this strategy after concluding they have no hope of winning over the people.
Similar tactics against the Palestinian intifada by Israel, which has sealed off towns and villages in the occupied territories for many months, have been widely criticized within the international community and human rights organizations as counter-productive.
The Americans have decided they have little to lose by sealing the town off in the hope that it will stifle guerrilla activity. Residents seem to think the approach is doomed to fail. A young policeman said over the wire barricade: "It will make the resistance stronger. Even those who did not fight when the Americans came to Iraq are being pushed to join the resistance."
The American military yesterday proved unable to provide The Independent with any comment on the enclosing of Awja. But Lieutenant-Colonel Steve Russell of the 4th Infantry Division, who came up with the scheme, told The Washington Post in an interview last week: "The insurgents should not be allowed to swim among the population as a whole. What we elected to do was make Awja a fish bowl so we could see who was swimming inside."
An American patrol opened fire yesterday on people in Baghdad's gun market, killing three, including an 11-year-old boy, after the soldiers mistook the gunfire of customers testing weapons for an attack, a witness and an Iraqi police officer said.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd