IS Hides Behind Human Shields to Halt Iraqi Army in Fallujah

IS Hides Behind Human Shields to Halt Iraqi Army in Fallujah IS Hides Behind Human Shields to Halt Iraqi Army in Fallujah

The self-styled Islamic State fighters set up human shields to halt an Iraqi Army assault on the city of Fallujah on Tuesday, while the United Nations warned of peril for civilians trapped in the city.

The Iraqi Army’s assault on Fallujah has begun and is expected to be one of the biggest battles ever fought against IS, with the government backed by world powers, including the United States and Iran, all of whom are determined to win back the first major Iraqi city that fell to the group in 2014, Reuters reported.

A week after Baghdad announced the start of the assault, its troops advanced in large numbers into the city limits for the first time on Monday, pouring into rural territory on its southern outskirts but stopping short of the main built-up area.

Baghdad describes the assault to retake the city as a potential turning point in its US-backed campaign to defeat the extremists who plan to establish a self-proclaimed caliphate across much of Iraq and Syria.

Fallujah, where US troops fought the biggest battles of their own 2003-11 occupation against IS’s precursors, is the militants’ closest bastion to Baghdad, believed to be the base from which they have waged a campaign of suicide bombings on the capital less than an hour’s drive away.

Retaking 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.

But the assault is also a test of the army’s ability to capture territory while protecting civilians. Although most of Fallujah’s population is believed to have fled during six months of siege, 50,000 people are still thought to be trapped inside with limited access to food, water or healthcare.

 “Human Catastrophe Unfolding”

“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 said.

The United Nations said there were reports that the militants were using several hundred families as human shields in the city center, a tactic they have employed in other locations in Iraq. It said 3,700 people had managed to escape the city in the past week.

“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, spokeswoman 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 said, using an acronym for IS, also known as ISIS or Daesh.

Soldiers from Iraq’s elite Rapid Response Team stopped their advance overnight about 500 meters from the al-Shuhada district, the southeastern part of city’s main built-up area, an army commander and a police officer said.

“Our forces came under heavy fire, they are well dug in in trenches and tunnels,” said the commander speaking in Camp Tariq, the rear army base south of Fallujah, 50 km west of Baghdad.

Reuters’ journalists in the area could hear explosions from artillery shelling and airstrikes from a US-led coalition supporting the Iraqi forces.

A staff member of Fallujah’s main hospital said it received reports of 32 civilians killed on Monday. Medical sources had reported that the death toll in the city stood at about 50—30 civilians and 20 militants—during the first week of the offensive that had yet to involve street fighting.

Foreign aid organizations are not present in Fallujah, but are providing help in camps to those who manage to exit.

Fallujah is the second-largest Iraqi city still under the control of the militants, after Mosul, their de facto capital in the north that had a prewar population of about 2 million.