An Unprecedented Act: Iraqi Leader Halts Planned Assault on Fallujah because of Risk to 50,000 Civilians Trapped in City
June 2, 2016
Sinan Salaheddin / Associated Press & Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com & Carlo Munoz / The Washington Times
The UN Children's Fund issued a warning to Iraqi troops and ISIS militants in the battle for Fallujah to spare an estimated 20,000 children, among the tens of thousands of civilians trapped by the fighting in this city west of Baghdad. Shortly thereafter, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi halted military operations to retake the city over concerns the city's 50,000 inhabitants would be caught in the crossfire. A remarkable act. In war, the lives of innocent civilians are rarely a concern.
20,000 Children Are Trapped in Fallujah as Iraq Battles ISIS, UN Says
Sinan Salaheddin / Associated Press
BAGHDAD (June 1, 2016) -- The UN children's fund on Wednesday issued a stark warning to Iraqi troops and ISIS militants in the battle for Fallujah to spare the children, the most vulnerable among the tens of thousands of civilians who remain trapped by the fighting for control of this city west of Baghdad.
Backed by aerial support from the US-led coalition and paramilitary forces mainly made up of Shiite militias, Iraqi government troops more than a week ago launched a military operation to recapture Fallujah, which has been under control of the extremist group for more than two years.
As the battled unfolded -- with Iraqi forces this week pushing into the city's southern sections after securing surrounding towns and villages -- more than 50,000 people are believed to be trapped inside the Sunni majority city, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad.
The UNICEF estimated the number of the children trapped with their families inside the city at about 20,000, warning that they face a dire humanitarian situation, in addition to the risk of forced recruitment into the fighting by the ISIS militants.
"Children who are forcibly recruited into the fighting see their lives and futures jeopardized as they are forced to carry and use arms, fighting an adults' war," the organization said in a statement. It called on "all parties to protect children inside Fallujah" and "provide safe passage to those wishing to leave the city."
On the ground, Iraqi special forces continued their push into the city from its southern edge, said Brig. Haider al-Obeidi with the elite counterterrorism troops. Al-Obeidi described the clashes underway Wednesday as "fierce" and said the Iraqi troops were facing tough resistance from IS militants.
Fallujah was the first large city in Iraq to fall to ISIS and it is the last major urban area controlled by the extremist group in western Iraq. The Sunni-led militants still control the country's second-largest city, Mosul, in the north, as well as smaller towns and patches of territory in the country's west and north.
The fight for Fallujah is expected to be protracted because ISIS has had more than two years to dig in. Hidden bombs are believed to be strewn throughout the city, and the presence of trapped civilians will limit the use of supporting airstrikes.
Iraq PM Orders Fallujah Assault Halted Over Fear of Killing Civilians
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(June 1, 2016) -- Citing his concern that a full-scale military assault on the city of Fallujah would lead to a large number of civilian bystanders being caught in the crossfire, Iraqi Prime Minister Hayder Abadi has announced that the assault is being suspended for the time being.
Iraqi officials had previously predicted the battle would be quick and easy, but facing heavy resistance, they are now warning the battle would be particularly bloody. With some 50,000 civilians trapped within, overwhelmingly Sunni Arabs, Abadi clearly did not want to expose himself to responsibility for a high civilian death toll.
Still, Abadi claimed "victory is within reach," and while he didn't make it clear what the plans are now, the Iraqi forces surrounding the city aren't going anywhere. That could spark another concern, as reports within the city have suggested growing shortages as troops surrounded it on all fronts.
Fallujah's civilians are in a bad way no matter what happens at this point, it seems, facing either death from starvation during the siege, death during a bloody military offensive and urban combat, or failing that purges by the Shi'ite militias described as "dirty brigades" which have carried out revenge attacks on Sunnis in "liberated" areas elsewhere, and which are front-line in Fallujah's offensive.
Fallujah has been under ISIS control for two and a half years now, the longest of any city in Iraq, and is heavily defended. The city is also very close to Baghdad, however, and since the "liberation" and destruction of neighboring Ramadi, is far from any other ISIS territory, making it far out of supply.
Though that makes it more likely to fall, its remoteness from other ISIS territory has made it harder for civilians to flee, as Sunnis fleeing ISIS cities are largely unwelcome in the Shi'ite cities to the east, and with Ramadi gone there is no nearby neighbor to the west.
Iraq Halts Fallujah Assault over Civilian Casualty Concerns
Carlo Munoz / The Washington Times
FALLUJAH (June 1, 2016) -- The Iraqi assault to retake the Islamic State-held city of Fallujah stalled Wednesday after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi halted operations over concerns the city's 50,000 inhabitants would be caught in the crossfire.
"It would have been possible to end the battle quickly if protecting civilians wasn't among our priorities," Mr. al-Abadi told military commanders after the decision was made to halt the Iraqi military's advance, Reuters reported. "Thank God, our units are at the outskirts of Fallujah and victory is within reach," he added.
Taking up positions along the eastern and southern outskirts Fallujah, Iraqi security forces were poised to drive into the heart of the city within the coming days. Arab Sunni and Iranian-backed Shi'ite militiamen were also expected to move into the southern portion of city, 40 miles east of Baghdad, as part of the assault.
With operations now suspended, it remains unclear as to when Iraqi and coalition forces will retake the last major city under Islamic State control in the volatile Anbar province.
American military advisers assisting local forces in coordinating the Fallujah operation say the fight for the city will be the toughest and most grueling of the entire Anbar campaign.
Initial reports from front-line units indicate the fight for Fallujah will be akin to the long, drawn-out battles triggered by the Islamic State's aggressive defense of Ramadi and Kobani in Syria, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Tuesday. In both battles, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, suffered staggering losses before eventually ceding to local troops and militias.
"The last two days have shown they intend to put up a fight" not seen in recent operations to retake the key cities of Hit and Rutba in Anbar province from Islamic State control, Capt. Davis said.
Local forces kicked off "shaping operations" in areas surrounding the city last week, which included securing staging areas in the towns and villages surrounding Fallujah, as well as attempting to evacuate as many of the 50,000 civilians inhabiting the city as possible before the pending assault.
Recent reports claim fighters for Islamic State in Fallujah are co-opting the city's residents as human shields to reinforce their defenses.
In May, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned there would be "a great risk" for massive civilian casualties once local forces begin to move into Fallujah in earnest.
Iraqi forces based in the Nuaimiya district south of Fallujah repelled a fierce Islamic State counterattack Saturday, a day after local forces retook the area. The militants reportedly used underground tunnels and positioned snipers and six car bombs in an attempt to break the Iraqi lines in the district.
The militants reportedly herded civilians into a single neighborhood in Nuaimiya for use as human shields, The Associated Press reported.
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