Iraqis in "besieged" city struggle to survive

By Ahmed Rasheed

SAMARRA, Iraq, May 18 (Reuters) - Abu Mahmoud says an 11-day curfew in the Iraqi city of Samarra has pushed his family's survival skills to the limit as supplies of food, medicine and fuel dwindle alarmingly.

"There is no electricity, no water, no schools and no hospitals. Samarra has turned into a city for the dead," the 65-year-old father of three said.

Since U.S. and Iraqi forces imposed a curfew and sealed off the city following a suicide bomb attack that killed 12 police officers on May 6, residents are struggling to find basic goods.

The curfew has been eased since. But many residents said ways in to the city were still blocked.

Some shops have closed, a doctor in the main hospital said patients were dying because of a lack of fuel for generators and people were using wooden boats in the Tigris river to ferry foodstuff and the wounded to a nearby town.

The bombing, which killed Samarra's police chief Abdul-Jelil al-Dulaimi, also damaged the city's power grid and main water pipe, triggering electricity and water shortages.

"The humanitarian situation in Samarra is terrible. Many have already run out of food and hospitals have closed because of an absence in power and medicine," said an Iraqi Red Crescent worker in the nearby town of Tikrit who asked not to be named.

U.S. and Iraqi forces turned back three aid trucks the organisation had sent to Samarra in an effort to ease the plight of the city's 300,000 residents, the worker said.

One truck sent by the provincial council filled with food, fuel and medicine did arrive 72 hours after the curfew was imposed, but many residents said they received no aid.

U.S. forces in Samarra said the curfew had made life harder, but blamed the security measures on insurgent attacks.

"This curfew ... did cause problems for the people and made living very difficult," U.S. military Captain Aydin Mohtashamian told Reuters in response to an e-mail query.

"But it is important to note it was because of the terrorist attack that the (local) government imposed these restrictions."

Samarra, a Sunni city north of Baghdad, was the home of the Shi'ite shrine that was destroyed in a bomb blamed on al Qaeda in February 2006. That attack triggered the wave of sectarian violence that has pushed Iraq close to all-out civil war.

The government of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has promised to rebuild the shrine's golden dome, but construction has not begun.


Residents complained they are victims of "collective punishment", as Sunni Islamist al Qaeda militants have kept up a campaign of killing policemen, blowing up communication towers and forcing female students to wear face-covering veils.

"The city is dying and the government is watching," tribal leader Mutashar Hussein said.

"This curfew will not help calm the situation because it's a form of collective punishment against innocent residents who have nothing to do with violence."

A doctor working in Samarra's main hospital said 10 people, including seven infants, had already died because of lack of fuel to power generators and operate life-saving machinery.

"The young and the elderly are most at risk. On one day, four new-born babies died because there was no energy to power incubators," he said on condition of anonymity, fearing arrest.

The Samarra Bridge, the main entrance for the historic city, has been mostly blocked off by U.S. and Iraqi forces with concrete slabs and sand barriers. Only some vehicles carrying fuel and food are allowed through after intense searches.

Abu Khalid, a 55-year-old businessman and father of five who fled sectarian violence in Baghdad to settle in Samarra, is now looking to move again.

"This punishment resembles a death sentence against an entire population," he said. "I'm really thinking of leaving Iraq even if I had to live in a tent ... at least that's better than this life."


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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