Tuesday 27 September 2016

Isil resist as aid staff tell of Fallujah 'catastrophe'

Maher Nazeh Beiruit

Published 01/06/2016 | 02:30

A military vehicle burns as IS fighters battle Iraqi forces and their allies west of Falluja. Photo: AP
A military vehicle burns as IS fighters battle Iraqi forces and their allies west of Falluja. Photo: AP
Iraqi security forces members sit in a military vehicle near Falluja. Photo: Reuters
A member of Iraqi security forces gestures near Falluja. Photo: Reuters
Iraqi security forces members sit in a military vehicle near Falluja. Photo: Reuters
Iraqi security forces military vehicles are seen as smoke rises from clashes with Islamic State militants in Falluja, Ir. Photo: Reuters
Iraqi counterterrorism forces face off with Islamic State militants on the southern edge of Fallujah, Iraq. Photo: AP
Smoke rises as Iraqi counterterrorism forces face off with Islamic State militants on the southern edge of Fallujah, Iraq. Photo: AP

IsIL militants fought back vigorously overnight and parried an onslaught by the Iraqi army on a southern district of the city of Falluja, the group's bastion near Baghdad, officers said yesterday.

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An aid official warned of a "human catastrophe" unfolding in the city, with residents unable to escape.

Soldiers from the elite Rapid Response Team stopped their advance overnight about 500 metres from the al-Shuhada district, the southeastern part of the city's main built-up area, an army commander and a police officer said.

"Our forces came under heavy fire, they are well dug in trenches and tunnels,'' said the commander speaking in Camp Tariq, the rear army base south of Falluja, 50km west of Baghdad.

A staff member of Falluja's main hospital said they received reports of 32 civilians killed on Monday.

Medical sources had reported that the death toll in the city stood at about 50, 30 civilians and 20 militants, during the first week the offensive which started on May 23.

Iraqi counterterrorism forces face off with Islamic State militants on the southern edge of Fallujah, Iraq. Photo: AP
Iraqi counterterrorism forces face off with Islamic State militants on the southern edge of Fallujah, Iraq. Photo: AP

Falluja has been under siege for more than six months. Foreign aid organisations are not present in the city, but are providing help to those who manage to exit and reach refugee camps. The latest offensive is causing alarm among these organisations as more than 50,000 civilians remain trapped with limited access to water, food and health care.

"A human catastrophe is unfolding in Fallujah. Families are caught in the crossfire with no safe way out," said Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the organisations helping families displaced form the city.

"For nine days, we have heard of only one single family managing to escape from inside the town,'' he said in a statement yesterday.

"Warring parties must guarantee civilians safe exit now, before it's too late and more lives are lost."

Falluja is the second-largest Iraqi city still under control of the militants, after Mosul, their de facto capital in the north that had a pre-war population of about two million.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the assault on Falluja on May 22 after a spate of bombings that killed more than 150 people in one week in Baghdad, the worst death toll so far this year. A series of bombings claimed by Isil also hit Baghdad on Monday, killing over 20 people.

Smoke rises as Iraqi counterterrorism forces face off with Islamic State militants on the southern edge of Fallujah, Iraq. Photo: AP
Smoke rises as Iraqi counterterrorism forces face off with Islamic State militants on the southern edge of Fallujah, Iraq. Photo: AP

Falluja has been a bastion of the Sunni insurgency that fought both the US occupation of Iraq and the Shi'ite-led Baghdad government that took over after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, in 2003.

The battle for Fallujah has raised fears of a sectarian backlash, as Shia militias have been accused of retaliation against the civilian population in areas retaken from Isil.

Middle East analyst Michael Pregent, at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC, said the heavy involvement of Shia militias "is not going to win over the Sunni population that is needed to fight Isil".

"We are leaving Shia militia men... to decide who is Isil and who is a collaborator," he told Al Jazeera. "If you look at the public relations photos coming out Fallujah you have women and children being given water bottles by the Shia militia men but where are the men? What they do is they take the men and put them somewhere else and the militia men decide who is a Daesh [Isil] and who is a collaborator, and the punishment is the same."

Irish Independent

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