ARAB JUBUR, Iraq (AFP) — Three months after US forces dropped tonnes of bombs on Arab Jubur and put Al-Qaeda to flight, farmers are everywhere out in their fields tending their tomatoes.
Homes in the Sunni Arab rural patch about 25 kilometres (15 miles) south of Baghdad, meanwhile, are being rebuilt, schools reopened, roads repaired and irrigation pumps renewed, even as shopkeepers happily dust off their shelves.
"It's the first time in three years I am able to work in my lands," said Ammar Wadi, a 30-year-old vegetable farmer who also runs a small dairy herd.
His lands, on the banks of the Tigris, are thriving. Besides tomatoes, he also grows ochre and wheat, while some of his 30 acres is devoted to pastures.
"When Al-Qaeda was here it was impossible to farm," said the jolly-faced farmer from under an orange cap while taking time out from his labours to visit his cousin's newly-reopened grocery store on a dusty rural road.
"They cut the power so we couldn't pump water," said Wadi. "We couldn't buy fuel. They would shoot at anyone they saw in the fields. They kidnapped and murdered many people. They destroyed life here."
The last crops he planted -- in 2005 -- withered and died because he couldn't irrigate them after Al-Qaeda arrived in force.
In the next two years he and his family of seven managed to survive only thanks to their dairy herd and by stealthily smuggling milk off to markets in Baghdad under the noses of the jihadists.
"Unlike most of the other people in Arab Jubur, we were never attacked by Al-Qaeda. We kept a very low profile," said Wadi, a giant of a man whose profile is anything but low. "We all survived, God be praised."
Not as fortunate was Mohammed Ali Jassim al-Juburi, 54, a former sergeant in the army of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein who returned to his farmlands in Arab Jubur after losing his post in the aftermath of the US invasion in 2003.
Two of his brothers were killed by Al-Qaeda jihadists in a drive-by shooting while his son was among 12 youths killed in an ambush in December.
"After they killed them they dragged their bodies behind vehicles through the streets, proclaiming them to be spies," said Juburi. "My son's body was mutilated."
Terrified and grieving, he and his family took fright and fled in the dark that night by boat down the Tigris.
"We left with only the clothes we were wearing," said Juburi, a square-jawed man with high eyebrows and wells of deep sadness in his eyes.
"Al-Qaeda are the worst criminals on earth," he said standing before large posters of his slain relatives displayed among others killed by Al-Qaeda at a memorial set up at the local community centre.
"I hope they never come back. We now just want to farm in peace. I hope the Americans stay here for a long, long time," he said.
US forces, in the form of "surge" troops with the First Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, landed in Arab Jubur on January 10 and began pushing down the main road, which had been primed with hundreds of roadside bombs.
Progress was slow and casualty rates high -- about 15 soldiers killed and as many wounded.
Eventually, according to Captain Neil Hollenback, commander of Alpha Company which was leading the charge, they decided to call in air support.
"We brought in the JDAMs," he said referring to precision guided bombs packing 500 pounds of explosives.
US warplanes dropped 118,000 pounds (about 53,600 kilos) of bombs in two weeks of operations mostly aimed at roadside bombs and booby trapped buildings.
"Within days of our air assault Al-Qaeda had fled," said Hollenback.
By February 11, the main roads had been cleared, US forces had hired hundreds of locals as members of their Sons of Iraq anti-Qaeda fronts they are setting up across Iraq, and residents started returning in droves.
Among them was Juburi.
"We found that our house had been vandalised, all the furniture was gone, Our cattle had been stolen. We had to start from zero again," said the gap-toothed former soldier bitterly.
Schools too had to start from zero, but from a mere 20 to 25 children in mid-February, attendance at Arab Jubur's primary school has now shot up to 260, according to headmaster Hamudi Salman.
This is still down from 450 before Al-Qaeda moved in but far better than in December and January when the jihadists took over the building and used it as a headquarters, after months of harassing female teachers and forcing them to wear the veil, long skirts and gloves.
Ali Mohammed Khalaf, a slim, 28-year-old farmer with a squint, was among the thousands of residents who returned to find his house looted and vandalised.
To help rebuild his life, he joined the Sons of Iraq and is paid 300 dollars a month by the US military.
In between his shifts, Khalaf tends his tomato fields. But he does so very nervously. On the edge of one field is an old yellow bus the US military believes has been booby-trapped by Al-Qaeda.
At the other end of the field is the rubble of a building bombed by US warplanes during the January bombardment because it too had been booby-trapped.
"I have to be careful. There may still be bombs under the rubble," he said.
US commanders say there are still countless roadside bombs and booby-traps in the area and it will take months to clear them all.
Al-Qaeda may have left Arab Jubur in haste, but they left behind many deep and dangerous footprints.
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