13,000 families flee Fallujah amid Iraq standoff
BAGHDAD - Agence France-Presse
Workers remove a pile of garbage in the center of the city of Fallujah, west of the capital Baghdad on Jan. 8following days of fighting between Iraqi security forces and militants. AFP photoMore than 13,000 families have fled Fallujah, NGOs said Jan.7, warning of a "critical" humanitarian situation as masked gunmen locked in a days-long standoff with Iraqi troops hold the city.
And though traffic police returned to its streets, some shops reopened and more cars could be seen, Fallujah was still hit by clashes and shelling, after an al-Qaeda-linked group urged Sunnis to keep fighting the Shiite-led government.
Fallujah and parts of nearby Ramadi, both in the western province of Anbar which borders Syria, have been outside government hands for days -- the first time militants have exercised such open control in major cities since the height of the insurgency that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
On Jan. 7, the Iraqi Red Crescent said it had provided humanitarian assistance to more than 8,000 families across Anbar but added that upwards of 13,000 had fled and were living with relatives, or in schools or other public buildings.
"There is a critical humanitarian situation in Anbar province which is likely to worsen as operations continue," Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. special envoy to Iraq, said in a statement.
"The situation in Fallujah is particularly concerning as existing stocks of food, water and life-saving medicines begin to run out." Earlier on Jan. 7, uniformed traffic police, whose sole responsibility is directing vehicles and controlling intersections, were back on the streets in several parts of central Fallujah, an AFP journalist reported.
They were apparently on duty with the blessing of the gunmen, whose allegiance was not immediately clear.
The gunmen were deployed in areas around the edge of Fallujah, at the entrances of neighbourhoods, and on bridges -- including one from which the bodies of American contractors were infamously hung in 2004, prompting the first of two US assaults that year.
Some shops in the city reopened, and light traffic returned to the streets. But the city still faces the threat of an assault by soldiers deployed nearby.
Also on Jan. 7, two areas of Fallujah saw brief clashes and shelling, witnesses said, but it was not immediately clear who was involved in the fighting.
The Aa-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been active in Fallujah, but so have anti-government tribes.
Fallujah and parts of the Anbar provincial capital Ramadi farther west have been outside government control for days -- the first time militants have exercised such open control in major cities since the height of the insurgency that followed the US-led invasion of 2003.
The violence in Anbar, which began on December 30 with the removal of a Sunni Arab anti-government protest camp, has killed more than 250 people -- the worst unrest to hit the province in years.