A steady stream of families fleeing fighting in Ramadi and Fallujah is arriving at a checkpoint in Iraq’s Karbala province, seeking shelter from the deadly violence.
As militants hold parts of Ramadi and all of Fallujah, in Anbar province, Sunni families are now seeking safety in the Shiite-majority Karbala province, in a country that has been plagued by sharp sectarian divisions.
The checkpoint in the Ain Tamr district has the look of a border crossing, manned by police and soldiers supported by armoured vehicles.
Authorities have laid on the extra security to stop militants entering Karbala, where the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein is buried, at one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam.
One of the nearly 300 people to seek refuge in Ain Tamr is 38-year-old Hussein Aleiwi, who worked in a restaurant in Ramadi, 100 kilometres (60 miles) west of Baghdad.
He has just arrived at the checkpoint with 22 other members of his family, mostly women and children, among them his wife and six of his sons.
“The only choice left was to flee for fear our children and wives would be killed in the continuous shooting and the mortar shelling in Ramadi,” he says.
His voice shaking as he holds his daughter, Aleiwi says “the city is suffering from a lack of security, of fuel, of electricity, and most businesses are shut”.
Fear and exhaustion show on the faces of his family as they wait for a truck to take them to the house of a relative in Ain Tamr.
Fighting broke out in Anbar after security forces demolished a major anti-government protest camp last week, and Al-Qaeda-linked militants seized control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi after security forces left areas of both cities.
Dozens of people have been killed in Anbar violence, including clashes in Ramadi, as troops try to retake control of militant-held areas, and on the outskirts of Fallujah, parts of which have been shelled by the army.
It is the most serious unrest in years to hit the Sunni-majority province bordering war-torn Syria.
It is also the first time militants have exercised such open control in major cities since the height of the insurgency that followed the US-led invasion of 2003.
‘Al-Qaeda snipers on roofs’
Shaalan Kadhim, a security forces member at the checkpoint, says that “for four days, families from Fallujah and Ramadi have been flocking to Ain Tamr”.
“All of them complain of the tough circumstances and the suffering” in their home cities, he adds.
“There are Al-Qaeda snipers hiding on the roofs, and they are killing everyone, soldiers and civilians, without distinction.”
Faleh Aidan, 55, an agriculture ministry employee who had fled Fallujah, says: “No schools and no government departments are working and shops have all closed.”
The city’s residents live in fear, he says, and “some of them have begun living in very simple houses here, but they feel like they are living in palaces”.
Fallujah was the target of two major assaults in which US forces saw some of their heaviest fighting since the Vietnam War before American troops backed by tribal allies eventually wrested back control of Anbar from militants.
Raed al-Mashhadani, the local official responsible for Ain Tamr, told AFP that “since the first days of the crisis in Anbar province, we have taken measures to welcome the families fleeing” the fighting.
By Monday, more than 60 families had arrived in the district, mostly from Fallujah.
He says local authorities were working with the Iraqi Red Crescent and the International Organisation for Migration to provide families with aid, including fuel and food.
Mashhadani adds that some 400 Anbar families, mostly from Fallujah, came to Ain Tamr during the 2004 fighting.
Outside a public library in Ain Tamr, new arrivals gather to register and receive aid, watched over by representatives from humanitarian groups and local officials.
Abbas Razzaq, who arrived from Fallujah with his wife and four children four days ago, is relieved to be away from the fighting.
“We feel that we are among our people, our brothers,” he says. “We are all family here — there is no difference between Sunni and Shiite.”