World News

Tough security sends Iraq's Falluja back centuries

FALLUJA, Iraq (Reuters) - Residents of Falluja have seen their streets emptied of cars, motorbikes and even bicycles for more than two months under a vehicle ban aimed at curbing violence in the Sunni Arab town.

And they are split. While some welcome the increased security, many complain that it is a form of collective punishment against a town which is synonymous with the insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq’s western Anbar province.

“The decision to stop car movement is very unjust and an attempt to increase depression and poverty on the city,” said Abdul-Karim Khalid, a 30-year-old car mechanic. “My work has stopped and I have been forced into unemployment. I have spent all my money to ensure my family lives.”

But his friend Saad Farhan says the vehicle ban is preferable to the violence that has blighted the town.

“Before this was implemented, we greatly feared masked gunmen who killed civilians and escaped using cars,” said the 33 year old, who sells car accessories.

“We do suffer from a lack of work, but we have the blessing of relative quiet now,” Farhan said.

Iraqi authorities imposed the ban in the town to prevent drive-by shootings and car bombings that have plagued Falluja.

According to a declassified U.S. intelligence report, attacks in the former insurgent stronghold of 300,000 people have dropped from nearly 200 a month in December to fewer than 30 in June.

The vehicle ban was first imposed on May 25, a day after a suicide car bomb hit a funeral for a tribal leader opposed to Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, killing 27 people.

In 2004 the U.S. military launched two major assaults on Falluja to end the control of al Qaeda fighters and other Sunni Arab militant groups who had imposed strict Islamic laws on the town. The assaults left much of the town destroyed.

After taking control of the town, U.S. soldiers required residents to have their fingerprints taken and their irises scanned for identification cards that allowed them to leave and re-enter Falluja.

Police chief Colonel Faisal al-Zobaie said he expected the vehicle ban to be lifted at the beginning of September.

“Police patrols are working night and day to pursue and capture terrorists so we can clean the city from their evil,” he said.

Commuter buses and food trucks are allowed to drive through the city only with special badges.

Taxi driver Jamal Hussein, 46, blamed local authorities and U.S. forces for the loss of his earnings.

“They are trying to kill the people of Falluja very slowly. For more than two months, I sat at home looking at my car during the day and night because I’m prevented from driving it. Is this right?”