Iraq: concern for civilians slowing Fallujah operation

Iraqi PM Abadi’s comments suggest however that the pace of the operation was intentionally slowed in order to spare civilians

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Concern for the plight of tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Fallujah is slowing the operation to retake the Iraqi city from militants, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Wednesday.

“It would’ve been possible to end the battle quickly if protecting civilians wasn’t one of the foundations of our plan,” Abadi told commanders outside Fallujah in comments broadcast by state television.

Elite forces from the counter-terrorism service backed by police, army and paramilitary groups on Monday launched a new phase of the operation to retake Fallujah.

But they have so far failed to breach the center of Fallujah, with commanders arguing that ISIS was offering fierce resistance.

Abadi’s comments suggest however that the pace of the operation was intentionally slowed in order to spare civilians whom the UN says are being used as human shields by ISIS.

There are an estimated 50,000 civilians trapped inside the city, which lies only 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Baghdad and is one of only two major urban hubs controlled by ISIS in Iraq.

Humanitarian organizations, the Iraqi government itself and the country’s most respected Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have all appealed for the plight of civilians to be given the utmost care.

The United Nations warned on Wednesday that thousands of children are facing extreme violence in Fallujah.

At least 20,000 children remain inside the ISIS’ stronghold near Baghdad and face the risk of forced recruitment into fighting and separation from their families, the United Nations’ children’s agency UNICEF said.

The World Food Program, in a separate statement, said the humanitarian situation was worsening as family food stocks were running down, pushing up prices to a level few can afford.

“We are concerned over the protection of children in the face of extreme violence,” UNICEF Representative in Iraq Peter Hawkins said in a statement.

“Children face the risk of forced recruitment into the fighting” inside the besieged city, and “separation from their families” if they manage to leave, he added.

Backed by Shiite militias and air strikes from the US-led coalition, the Iraqi armed forces launched an offensive on May 23 to recapture the city, 50 kms (32 miles) west of Baghdad.

The assault on Fallujah, the first Iraqi city to fall under control of the ultra-hardline Sunni militants in January 2014, is expected to be one of the biggest battles fought against ISIS.

(Reuters and AFP)

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