Mahmoud, who fled the city two years ago, following threats from al-Qaeda, recently returned home. In his absence his two sons were both killed by armed fundamentalists on charges of “promoting what is prohibited in Islam.” Both men were sentenced to death by firing squad after the confiscation of “twenty CDs of Arabic music and songs.” Mahmoud, who belongs to a Shiite family, was not the only person forced to leave his neighborhood in Khan Bani Sa’ad. When al-Qaeda declared Ba’qouba an Islamic Willayah in 2006, most of the city’s merchants left. Some were unfortunate and could not escape from the grip of gunmen, while others were forced to pay exorbitant ransoms in order to stay alive and keep their business running.
Following the recent security operation in Diyala targeting al-Qaeda militants, people are once again remembering the old times when they were able to go out freely and shop in the thriving commercial market. Jalal al-Mahnawi, who owns a popular coffee shop in Khan Sa’ad neighborhood says that “no young man would have dared to go out… without carrying a weapon as he does now because it would have cost him his life or led to his kidnapping.”
According to Sheikh Mustafa al-Sa’adi, a neighborhood notable, “poor security conditions caused the rich to leave the city as the markets became an arena for al-Qaeda to display their strength and to execute people. But now merchants are beginning to return to the city.” Pointing to one shop, Al-Sa’adi told the story of Hajj Salim Abdul-Kathem, a merchant “who has returned to the city after being forced to flee because al-Qaeda militants found Iranian made products in his shop. He saved his life and his family’s by paying a huge ransom when one merchant, loyal to al-Qaeda, intervened. Hajj Salim immediately left the city.”
Over the past two years many merchants moved premises to the more secure Province Street, where the municipal building and a number of governmental institutions and hospitals are located. Today, they are thinking of returning to the market place. Twenty one year-old Nasser Muhammad who opened a shop in this street said that he is “considering returning back to his old shop with less fears and with high demand for our products”.
A security committee member of Diyala province, who prefers to remain anonymous, said that “acts of violence and armed attacks targeting market places have decreased by 80 percent.” He believes that “security procedures has helped the market recover and people are starting to shop freely,” adding that “al-Qaeda has been left with only one measure: the use of women who storm markets by surprise from time to time to blow themselves up.”
But many of Khan Sa’ad merchants still hold fears. One merchant said that “attacks and publications inciting hatred still raise our fears,” showing a handwritten manuscript signed by a group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq Organization warning of "beheadings” for all collaborators and those promoting corruption and actions against the divine teachings of Islam.
Moreover, for many merchants, “the defeat of al-Qaeda does not necessarily mean full joy” since Popular Committee members have now taken control of key markets, particularly in the city of Ba’qouba. These forces, backed by the US in its fight against al-Qaeda, use methods of extortion and impose royalties on those who display their products in the streets say traders. According to one merchant, a grain trader in the market area, “every two weeks I pay an amount of $200 to a group called the night guards of the people's committees to guarantee my personal and shop safety. They take what they need from the shop without paying.”
The merchant, who fears to give his name, added that “their presence reminds us of visits made by party comrades during the rule of the former regime when they used to take what they wanted, tapping us on our shoulders repeating the word “Afiah” (well done).