Thousands flee Iraq government assault

Civilians have fled Falluja since last week after the Iraqi military intensified shelling.

Civilians have fled Falluja since last week after the Iraqi military intensified shelling.

BAGHDAD - Thousands of civilians have fled Falluja since last week after the Iraqi military intensified shelling in a new bid to crush a five-month old Sunni uprising, killing scores of people in what residents describe as massive indiscriminate bombardment.

The mortars, artillery and what residents call "barrel bombs" rained for at least seven days on Falluja - a city that was the nemesis of US troops a decade ago and is now the main battle ground in a war pitting the Shi'ite-led government against rebellious Sunni tribal chiefs and an al-Qaeda offshoot.

More than 420,000 people have already escaped the two main cities of western Anbar province, Falluja and Ramadi, in fighting since the start of the year. Residents say the new pounding of Falluja's residential neighbourhoods appears aimed at driving out all remaining civilians in preparation for an all-out assault to defeat armed groups once and for all.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is trying to cobble together a coalition to keep himself in office for a third term after an April 30 parliamentary election, has vowed to destroy fighters who seized parts of Anbar province last year.

The mainly Sunni desert province borders on Syria, and many of the fighters belong to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al-Qaeda offshoot waging war and holding territory on both sides of the frontier.

After several days of bombardment last week, the Iraqi military announced on Friday last week it was launching an assault on rural areas north, south and west of Falluja.

Since May 6 at least 55 people have been killed in Falluja, according to medical sources. The dead include civilians and fighters. More than 1,100 families - an estimated 6,000 people - fled the shelling, and more are still leaving, according to an Iraqi lawmaker, Liqa Wardi.

Falluja residents say the military is inflicting widespread damage, including using "barrel bombs" - powerful makeshift weapons made from high explosives, cement and metal parts packed into oil drums and dropped from helicopters.

Barrel bombs have gained notoriety in the region because of their use in neighbouring Syria by President Bashar al-Assad's forces to flatten buildings in rebel-held areas. The Iraqi government has denied using them and says it is taking care to avoid mass casualties.

"Despite the fact our brave forces and tribes are launching an extraordinary war and facing groups of suicidal killers, we are committed to targeting only the locations of insurgents," said Maliki's spokesman Ali al-Moussawi on Monday. "There are strict orders to stay away from residential areas."

However, a mid-level security officer in Anbar province confirmed that barrel bombs had in fact been dropped in Falluja.

"It's the scorched-earth policy - the destruction of a whole area. The army is less experienced in house-to-house fighting, which the rebels have mastered. That's why they've resorted to this," said the officer who has been involved in planning to retake the city, speaking on condition of anonymity.

By Monday, the army's major effort to enter Falluja's southern areas had failed and ground operations had once more stalled. Residents say the "barrel bombs" finally stopped. Maliki and his generals still vow they will retake the city.

Civilians, who are escaping Falluja after holding out for months in what had become a ghostly place, blame both sides for their plight. They are convinced the Shi'ite-led government wants to obliterate their city, and also fault Sunni militants and tribal fighters for playing havoc with their lives.

"We are trapped in the middle," said Abu Hameed, who owned a private computer school before the fighting and fled to Iraq's northern Kurdistan region over the weekend. "We are living in the street in the middle of nowhere."

Abu Hameed described witnessing a fierce explosion last week he was sure was a barrel bomb. The blast just 300 meters from his home convinced him staying inside the city was a death wish.

"It was something really extraordinary. The dust and the smoke. It looked like a nuclear bomb," he said, adding his family raced out of the city within two hours of the explosion last Wednesday. "We ran like hell."

Two other civilians interviewed by Reuters gave similar accounts of giant flames and mushrooming clouds that differed from the regular explosions they had witnessed caused by artillery, rockets and mortar fire.