May 18 2014
By Ali Lateef
Azzaman, May 18, 2014
At least 400,000 people are feared to have fled fighting in the town of Falluja and other areas in the restive Province of Anbar, west of Baghdad.
The exodus of people leaving the town surged as Iraqi troops started a campaign of heavy shelling in preparation for an all-out attack to wrest the city from militants of the Jihadist group ISIS.
The government says its current offensive on Falluja, which the militants overrun in a surprise attack more than three months ago, is a prelude to rid the whole of Anbar of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Residents and an army officer, who refused to be identified, said shelling by government troops was indiscriminate and that Iraq helicopter gunships were dropping “barrel bombs” on residential areas.
The government denied the use of barrel bombs and said the delay in re-taking Falluja from ISIS is mainly due to “extra care” to avoid civilian casualties.
Ali al-Mausawi, the spokesperson for Prime Minister Noori al-Maliki, said Iraqi troops and pro-government tribes “confront groups of killers, terrorists and suicide bombers.”
“Although the government and people from the area as well as tribes are waging an unusual battle, we avoid civilians who the terrorists are using as human shields,” Mausawi said.
He added: “The government has issued strict instructions to its security forces to avoid civilian areas and try to lure the terrorists away from them.”
However, residents from inside the city say the ferocity of the fighting was reminiscent of the large-scale assault by U.S. troops on the city to purge it of insurgents nearly 10 years ago.
The then U.S. attack also led to massive displacement and hundreds of casualties as well as large-scale destruction of the town.
Reports on casualties are scarce and if available they are hard to verify in the absence of coverage by foreign reporters and agencies.
Medical sources from inside Falluja say at least 50 people have been killed in the past two weeks but they did not say whether they were ISIS militants or civilians.