Only 800 people have been able to flee Fallujah since Iraqi forces launched a major offensive to retake the city, the United Nations said in a statement released Thursday.Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said that those who managed to leave the city occupied by the Islamic State group reported dire living conditions inside.”We are receiving distressing reports of civilians trapped inside Fallujah who are desperate to escape to safety, but can’t,” the statement quoted her as saying.The UN said that only 800 people had been able to flee Fallujah since May 22, “mostly from outlying areas.””Some families report having to walk for hours under harrowing conditions to reach safety. People trapped in the city centre are thought to be most at risk — unable to flee,” the UN said.
Grande said that those who managed to flee told of a dire situation inside the city, which lies only 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of the capital Baghdad.”Food supplies are limited and tightly controlled. Medicines are exhausted and many families have no choice but to rely on dirty and unsafe water sources,” she said.The UN and other humanitarian agencies have been unable to deliver much of the available assistance due to the lack of access since the operation was launched on May 22-23.
Humanitarian corridors discussed with the Iraqi authorities have largely failed to materialize so far.Jihadist fighters holed up in the Fallujah city centre have been imposing a curfew and forbidding residents to leave their homes, apparently using them as human cover.Residents contacted inside Fallujah have also said that the amount of bombs and booby traps laid by IS in and around the city would make any flight very perilous.The UN’s refugee agency also said on the first day of the operation that supply routes were effectively cut off by the tens of thousands of Iraqi forces surrounding the city, thus also preventing civilians from leaving.
Various rights and other groups had warned the Iraqi government against resorting to starvation tactics to defeat IS in Fallujah, where the UN estimates around 50,000 civilians remain.Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi urged protesters not to demonstrate in Baghdad on Friday because security forces are mobilized in the battle to retake Fallujah.Protesters, mostly followers of powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, have held demonstrations almost every Friday for weeks to demand a government reshuffle.
Last week they breached the fortified Green Zone, which houses most of the country’s top institutions, for the second time in three weeks.”I call upon our youth to postpone their protest tomorrow, because our security forces are busy fighting in Fallujah,” Abadi said, speaking from the command centre for the operation he announced on May 22-23.Tens of thousands of security forces are deployed in the Fallujah area for an assault aimed at retaking the city from the Islamic State group.
Fallujah, which lies only 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Baghdad, has been out of government control since January 2014 and is one of only two remaining major Iraqi cities still in IS hands, the other being Mosul.On May 20, protesters broke into the Green Zone and briefly stormed Abadi’s own office, further deepening a political crisis that has been crippling the country for months.
The security forces responded more forcefully than three weeks earlier when Sadr supporters breached the restricted area for the first time and stormed parliament.Human Rights Watch said in a statement released Thursday its investigations were able to confirm that four people were killed by the security forces during last week’s protest.”Security forces protecting the Green Zone had no legitimate reason to fire on protesters who presented no risk to their lives or others,” HRW Middle East director Joe Stork said.
The security forces defending the Green Zone used tear gas canisters and live bullets.The response angered Sadr and his followers and brought rival militia groups to the brink of confrontation in central Baghdad.Several military commanders and Baghdad’s partners in the US-led coalition had recommended focusing efforts on liberating Mosul first but observers say lauching the Fallujah operation offered the embattled Abadi some political reprieve.