Iraqi government-run camps struggled yesterday to shelter people fleeing Falluja, as the military battled IS militants in the city’s northern districts.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the jihadists on Friday after troops reached the city centre, following a four-week US-backed assault.
But shooting, suicide bombs, and mortar attacks continue.
More than 82,000 civilians have evacuated Falluja, an hour’s drive west of Baghdad, since the campaign began and up to 25,000 more are likely on the move, said the UN.
Yet camps are already overflowing with escapees who trekked several kilometres past IS snipers and minefields in sweltering heat to find there was not even shade.
“People have run and walked for days. They left Falluja with nothing,” said Lise Grande, UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Iraq. “They have nothing and they need everything.”
The exodus, which is likely to be many times larger if an assault on the northern IS stronghold of Mosul goes ahead as planned later this year, has taken the government and humanitarian groups off guard.
With attention focused for months on Mosul, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in May that the army would prioritise Falluja, the first Iraqi city seized by the militants in early 2014.
He ordered measures on Saturday to help escapees and 10 new camps will soon go up, but the government does not even have a handle on the number of displaced people, many of whom are stranded out in the open or packed several families to a tent.
One site hosting around 1,800 people has only one latrine, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“We implore the Iraqi government to take charge of this humanitarian disaster unfolding on our watch,” the aid group’s country director Nasr Muflahi said.
Iraq’s cash-strapped government has struggled to meet basic needs for more than 3.4m people across Iraq displaced by conflict.
People fleeing Falluja have been barred from entering Baghdad, just 60km away, and aid officials note a lack of community mobilisation.
Many Iraqis consider Falluja an irredeemable bulwark of Sunni Muslim militancy and regard anyone still there when the assault began as an IS supporter.
A bastion of the Sunni insurgency against US forces following the 2003 invasion, it was seen as a launchpad for bombings in Baghdad.
The participation of Shi’ite militias in the battle alongside the army raised fears of sectarian killings, and the authorities have made arrests related to allegations that militiamen executed dozens of fleeing Sunni men.
Formal government forces are screening men to prevent IS militants from disguising themselves as civilians to slip out of Falluja.
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