Iraq: Thousands flee upsurge in violence in Diyala province

DIYALA, 14 May 2007 (IRIN) - Thousands of Iraqis have been fleeing Diyala province - and others fleeing villages from within the province - over the past week after an increase in attacks by armed groups and a major offensive by US and Iraqi troops.

Diyala province is a volatile but religiously mixed governorate to the northeast of Bagdhad.

"In the past six days more than 900 families, about 5,000 individuals, have fled Diyala governorate. Some of them were forced out by militants and others were scared of the clashes," said Faris Abdallah, media officer for Diyala governorate office.

The villages of Khalis and Ambugiya have seen considerable sectarian violence and the number of internally displaced people is greatest there, Abdallah said, adding that most are Shi'a. Most of the families which have fled Diyala have headed to places outside the province such as the southern provinces of Najaf, Kerbala or Basra. Some have moved to outskirts of the capital, Baghdad, where camps those displaced from Diyala have been set up. Few families have also been internally displaced within the province.

According to the Iraq Red Crescent Society (IRCS), local people are facing an imminent humanitarian tragedy. Most fled their homes with only the clothes they were wearing. The IRCS said it was trying to help the newly displaced but volunteers were having access problems owing to the continued violence.

Religious extremists

According to Abdallah, Sunni insurgents have been establishing a Taliban-style rule over the local population in Diyala province and this has caused the death of dozens of residents, including women and children.

"They banned smoking and the consumption of any kind of product that might have been imported. Also, in some areas girls are prohibited from going to school as it is considered unnecessary; men cannot wear Western clothes and the Internet has been banned," Abdallah noted.

No food, water

Other humanitarian workers say the situation in Diyala is desperate.

"In some districts, people have been without food and water for more than five days as clashes continue and militants have forbidden them from leaving their homes. We have spoken by phone to some locals and they are desperate since they are looking after sick children and a heavily pregnant woman," said Fatah Ahmed, a spokesperson for the Iraq Aid Association (IAA).

"We cannot get close to the area for security reasons and are being forced to witness the start of a new catastrophe for hundreds of families who were already living in poverty and who have nothing to eat or drink. If they don't find a solution soon, we will start finding the bodies of people who have starved to death in their homes," Ahmed added.