US troops say they have been able to 'liberate' some of the villagers
in Diyala province from al-Qaeda [GALLO/GETTY]

We just returned from the province of Diyala and it feels good to be back in the relative safety of Baghdad.

We went with the US military's 3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Unit to visit the town of Himbis and the villages of Tahya and Abu Musa north of Baghdad.

They lie in an area referred to by the Americans as the bread basket along the Diyala river. The region, which is full of palm trees, is referred to by the Iraqis as Barwana.

One of our producers is from Diyala and he has never heard nor visited any of these places. But apparently al-Qaeda has been happily operating from there.

Northern desert

On a cold, but sunny day we arrived at FOB (forward operating base) Normandy by military helicopter, which had flown very low as it departed Baghdad, before heading out to the desert to the north.

The American soldiers here say they have managed to "liberate" a few of the villages from al-Qaeda's influence. The colonel tells us al-Qaeda fighters are still lurking around but they are keeping a low profile at the moment. Others fled further northwards, towards Mosul.

It has been the same pattern for the past five years - the US military clears one area and al-Qaeda pops up somewhere else.

Soldiers do admit that their enemy is sophisticated. Along the route, stuck in the back of a Stryker tank, one of them tells me that they arrested a man who had graduated from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology before returning to Diyala to fight.

He had managed to crack into the US military's local communication system.

Desolate town

We arrive in Himbis. Once, when the sounds of bullets and mortars did not ring in the air, this area was famous for its oranges and pomegranates.

But now it is a desolate town. Omar, one of the residents here, says they stopped going to their farms because they were scared.

Carrying his three-year-old son on his shoulders, he says the fighters who dominated this town covered their faces, carried weapons openly on the streets and maintained strict control of the residents.

The fighters imposed a daily 5pm to 7am curfew.

American soldiers told us al-Qaeda ran their own virtual state here.

Omar said life here has been fraught with killings and car bombs. He and many others spent the last three years indoors, fearful of being asked to join the group.

"They [the fighters] had weapons, they had car bombs," said Ail, another young Himbis resident. "They used to come and go and kill as they pleased."

Forgotten town

When we arrived at the village of Abu Musa, we were greeted by the excited shouts of the residents standing orderly in a queue as the Iraqi army distributed fuel.

Each family was allowed one medium-size jerry can.

It is very cold these days and the people in Abu Musa do not have electricity.

What little fuel they receive, means they will have a few hours of heat and a hot meal.

"It's cold. All we have to heat up is wood - I saved some for the morning so I can cook a hot meal for the kids," Samira, another Himbis resident, said.

Abu Musa is a tiny village which appears to have been completely forgotten by the government. There are no services whatsoever.

The women told me, "Thank God there is a canal here".

They have been drinking its water "without purifying it" they say. But it quenched their thirst all these years and they're grateful.

The women were afraid to talk to me but they did reveal that music was forbidden in public schools since the fall of Saddam. And all girls had to cover their faces.

Mulathameen

It struck me that very few here referred to the fighters who controlled their lives as al-Qaeda; they call them the mulathameen, the Arabic term for those who wear the balaclava - or ski mask.

The people here do their best to steer clear of the fighters and avoid exchanging words with them.

The area is Sunni so the people of Abu Musa were not targeted as long as they obeyed the rules.

In reality, the people of Abu Musa do not care who these fighters are. All they want is electricity, fuel, food and protection. Whoever gives it to them – American or the Iraqi government - becomes their friend.

It is a simple law of survival.

Source: Al Jazeera