At first, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me when I read this headline on the front page of the Washington Post:
Al Qaeda Seizes Town in Iraq
Insurgents Seize Key Town in Iraq
Al Qaeda in Iraq’s Black Banner Flying From Rooftops
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 5, 2005; 9:06 AM
BAGHDAD, Sept. 5 — Abu Musab Zarqawi’s foreign-led Al Qaeda in Iraq took open control of a key western town at the Syrian border, deploying its guerrilla fighters in the streets and flying Zarqawi’s black banner from rooftops, witnesses, residents and others in the city and surrounding villages said.
A sign newly posted at the entrance of Qaim declared, “Welcome to the Islamic Kingdom of Qaim.” A statement posted in mosques described Qaim as an “Islamic kingdom liberated from the occupation.”
Zarqawi’s fighters were killing officials and civilians seen as government-allied or anti-Islamic, witnesses, residents and others said. On Sunday, the bullet-riddled body of a woman lay in a street of Qaim. A sign left on her corpse declared, “A prostitute who was punished.”
There was no immediate comment from the U.S. or Iraqi military. A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, said he was looking into the reports.
Qaim, within a few miles of the Syrian border, has been a major stronghold for insurgents ferrying fighters, weapons and money from Syria into the rest of Iraq along a network of Euphrates River towns.
Many of the towns along the river have appeared to be heavily under the insurgents’ domination, despite repeated Marine offenses along the river since May. Residents and Marines have described insurgents escaping ahead of the offensives, and returning when the offensives are over.
While the stepped-up U.S. offensives have been unable to drive out insurgents permanently, the U.S. attacks are credited by some with helping disrupt insurgent networks and reduce the number of car-bombings and suicide attacks in the rest of Iraq.
U.S. Marines last week launched days of air strikes against suspected insurgent safe houses in the area, in some of the heaviest known uses of air power in recent months. A Sunni Arab tribe, the Albu Mahal tribe, simultaneously vowed to drive Zarqawi’s fighters from the area, with the aid of the U.S. air strikes.
U.S. and Iraqi officials welcomed what they called signs that insurgents were losing support from their Sunni Arab base in the west.
By the weekend, however, Zarqawi’s forces had fought back and taken control of Qaim, residents said. Accounts from the town described a rare, prolonged overt presence of the foreign fighters.
The Albu Mahal tribe as of Sunday remained in control of its village outside the city. However, a car bomb placed by Zarqawi’s fighters in front of the home of a tribal leader, Sheikh Dhyad Ahmed, killed the sheikh and his son on Sunday, resident Mijbil Saied said.
It was unclear whether any Iraqi forces were in Qaim. A Zarqawi fighter said any Marines and Iraqi forces had left Qaim, with “nothing left of their crosses.”
Armed insurgent fighters loyal to the Jordanian-born Zarqawi openly traveled Qaim’s streets. The fighters included both Iraqis and foreigners, including Afghans
The foreign-led fighters hung rooftops with Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda banner of black backgrounds with a yellow sun.
Shops selling CDs, a movie theater and a women’s beauty parlor were newly burned, apparently targeted by Zarqawi’s group under its strict interpretation of Islamic law.
Residents said Zarqawi’s fighters were killing most government workers, but had spared doctors and teachers.
Karim Hammad Karbouli, a 46-year-old resident still in Qaim, said he was waiting only for his brother to come with a pickup truck so Karbouli could load up his household and leave. Karbouli feared both Zarqawi’s fighters and U.S. bombs, he said.
Zarqawi’s fighters had taken control of the town’s hospital, one of its medical workers, Dr. Muhammed Ismail, said. The hospital’s director then ordered all patients to leave, fearing the presence of Zarqawi’s fighters would draw air strikes on the clinic, Ismail said.
Zarqawi fighters manned checkpoints on the four entrances to the city.
Boylan, in Baghdad, also said that any redeployment of forces back to the United States to help with the aftermath of hurricane Katrina would not affect the U.S. ability to carry out air strikes. The Air Force announced over the weekend it was sending home 300 Air Force members whose base is in Mississippi.