Global Independent Analytics

Fear For Civilians As Islamic State Halts Iraqi Army At Gates Of Fallujah

Although most of Fallujah’s population is believed to have fled, 50,000 people are still thought to be trapped inside with limited access to food, water or healthcare

Huffington Post reports: Islamic State fighters halted an Iraqi army assault on the city of Fallujah with a counter-attack at its southern gates on Tuesday, while the United Nations warned of peril for civilians trapped in the city and used by militants as human shields.

The Iraqi assault on Fallujah that was believed to be one of the biggest battles against Islamic State followed the Baghdad’s announcement of the offensive last week. Baghdad describes the assault to retake the city as a potential turning point in its U.S.-backed campaign to defeat the ultra-hardline Sunni Muslim militants who rule a self-proclaimed caliphate across much of Iraq and Syria.

Currently, the city of Fallujah is the U.S. militants’ closest bastion to Baghdad, and recapturing it would give the government control of the main population centers in the fertile Euphrates River valley west of the capital for the first time in more than two years.

However, this assault is not only about the army’s ability to retake territory captured by terrorists; it is also about their capacity to protect civilians. It was reported that still tens of thousands of people remain trapped within the city borders, basically under siege.

“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 organizations helping families displaced from the city. “Warring parties must guarantee civilians safe exit now before it’s too late and more lives are lost,” he added.

As reported by the UN, the ISIS combatants were using several hundred families as human shields in the city center, a tactic they have employed in other locations in Iraq.

“Most people able to get out come from the outskirts of Fallujah. For some time militants have been controlling movements, we know civilians have been prevented from fleeing,” said Ariane Rummery, spokesperson for UN refugee agency UNHCR. “There are also reports from people who left in recent days that they are being required to move with ISIL within Fallujah,” she continued, using an acronym for Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh.

Foreign aid organizations are not yet able to provide help directly in the city, but they are trying to assist those who managed to exit. Those who were left in the city, are experiencing extreme crisis: A staff member of Fallujah’s main hospital said it received reports of 32 civilians killed on Monday. Medical sources had said that the death toll in the city stood at about 50 — 30 civilians and 20 militants — during the first week of the offensive which had yet to include street fighting.

In Washington, U.S. officials said the Fallujah operation would take time to complete, without giving a timetable.

“The Fallujah offensive is tough ... They have faced a lot of heavy fighting in the past couple of days, machine gun fire, artillery fire, not to mention the constant threat of IEDs,” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said in his statement.

The humanitarian crisis has added to political pressure on Abadi, a member of Iraq‘s Shi’ite majority who is attempting to persuade a ruling coalition to stay together in the face of public protests against an entrenched political class. He has urged lawmakers to unite behind the army during the offensive despite their differences.

The United States is leading a coalition performing air strikes in support of the Iraqi government offensive and says it is having success in rolling back Islamic State.

In neighboring Syria, U.S. army has also supported mainly Kurdish militants who have seized territory from the fighters, as has the Russian-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Fallujah has been a stronghold of the Sunni revolt that fought both the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the Shi’ite-led Baghdad administration that took over after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, in 2003.

It would be the third major city in Iraq regained by the administration after Tikrit and Ramadi, the capital of Iraq‘s vast western Anbar province, which also includes Fallujah.

 

By Stefan Paraber for GIA.

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