Refugee exodus continues as al-Qaeda militants solidify positions in Falluja

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By Ali Latif

Azzaman, January 10, 2014

The inhabitants of the embattled city of Falluja are fleeing in droves as al-Qaeda militants strengthen positions and blow up bridges leading to the city.

The Iraqi Red Crescent said at least 13,000 families have fled the city in the past few days and the exodus was continuing.

The Red Crescent is the equivalent of the Red Cross in Muslim countries and has taken over handing out aid and assistance to Falluja which is home to nearly half a million people.

The city is besieged by Iraqi troops and reports say the inhabitants have been without water, electricity and other amenities since hundreds of al-Qaeda militants took control of it.

The displaced families have taken refuge in schools and other government buildings in villages and towns far away from the city.

The Red Crescent, in a statement faxed to the newspaper, said it has 60 teams to cater for the immediate needs of the people of Falluja and so far at least 8,000 families have received help.

The city is without fuel and government services have been suspended, it added.

In another development, Prime Minister Noori al-Maliki has called on al-Qaeda militants entrenched in the city to surrender or face an army assault to dislodge them by force.

The militants in control of Falluja and large swathes of desert west of Baghdad, including parts of Ramadi, a provincial capital, belong to ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

ISIS is engaged in pitched battles in Syria with both government troops and other armed groups from the opposition.

In Iraq it draws mainly on Muslim Sunni recruits among them foreign fighters but many powerful tribes have sided with the government in its fight against al-Qaeda.

In 2004, Falluja was the target of a massive assault by U.S. troops in Iraq also in a bid to free it from al-Qaeda militants.  The U.S. marines finally spread their control over Falluja but never managed to bring calm and tranquility to the city.

The government hopes Sunni tribesmen, who have risen against ISIS, will eventually either persuade or force the militants to leave.