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December 3rd, 2006 - ‘Damascus is near, where is Baghdad?’ asks Fallujah

News article by The News - International (Pakistan)

Summary of the Falluja Chronicles

‘Damascus is near, where is Baghdad?’ asks Fallujah


The News - International

December 3, 2006


Fallujah - For residents of Iraq’s former rebel town of Fallujah, distant Damascus seems closer these days than their own war-torn capital Baghdad, just 50 kilometres away. Whether it be traders needing to replenish supplies or families taking their loved ones for medical treatment, the highway to Baghdad is a road inhabitants of this predominantly Sunni town would rather avoid.


For them the long, rocky 900 kilometre journey to the Syrian capital is a far safer option. “Damascus is nearer to us than Baghdad despite the odds on the long journey,” says Mohammed Jayad, a trader from Fallujah, once a hotbed of Sunni rebels fighting US forces after the toppling of Saddam Hussein.


“Actually it should be the other way, but Baghdad has turned into a far-fetched dream or rather a Bermuda triangle,” he said referring to the mysterious region in the Atlantic Ocean where ships and planes are said to disappear without explanation.


Many districts of Baghdad, the epicentre of Iraq’s violence, have become virtual death traps for Sunni Arabs as rampaging Shia militias storm districts and neighbourhoods, killing and kidnapping members of the formerly ruling sect. Despite a massive security operation since mid-June by US and Iraqi forces, hundreds and hundreds of Baghdadis are killed each week, some kidnapped and shot execution-style, some blown apart in car bombs some caught in crossfire between security forces and militia groups.


The deadly sectarian carnage has deeply affected the Sunni Arabs from Fallujah who once bore the brunt of fighting between Iraq’s raging insurgency and US forces, who stormed the town in November 2004 and sent its nearly 250,000 inhabitants fleeing.


Fallujah has now emerged as a relatively peaceful town in the otherwise flashpoint Anbar province and residents say they now want to get on with their lives-and avoid Baghdad at all cost. Hadi Jassim, a Sunni Arab, takes his ailing son, who suffers from cancer, for treatment at a hospital in Damascus. “My son perodically needs physiotherapy.


I used to take him to Baghdad regularly until a nurse told me to stop visiting,” Hadi told AFP. “I had no option but to go abroad. I tried to go to Amman but was not allowed to cross the border, so I left for Syria and had the first session there despite the costs-which were higher than in Baghdad.” While Jassim and others like him return to Iraq after completing their missions, many tens of thousands of other Iraqis simply stay put once they have crossed the border.


The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are at least 600,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria and that their numbers are swollen by 2,000 new arrivals every day. Fallujah’s traders, meanwhile, find it easier to import goods from Syria than from Baghdad. The number of checkpoints on the highway to Baghdad and incidents such as the massacre by Shia militias in the capital’s Jihad neighbourhood of more than 40 Sunnis travelling by bus in July have made people reluctant to head to the violence-wracked city.


Traders have now decided to come together and order bulk imports from Damascus. The goods are then supplied to smaller markets across Fallujah and nearby regions. “Fallujah has become the trade hub for many neighbouring regions. We no longer need big trade centres like Baghdad,” Jayad said. Some goods they import are finding their way to Baghdad through a two-step process in which they are transported to wholesale zones near Abu Ghraib from where another group of traders picks them up and take them on to the capital. A truck driver who regularly transports goods to Abu Ghraib, on the outskirts of Baghdad, said they dare not enter the capital. “The job of the drivers ends there as they can’t proceed because they come from a certain sect,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.


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