Noose tightens around thousands caught in Iraq’s Anbar offensive

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Members of Iraq's Shi'ite paramilitaries launch a rocket towards Islamic State militants in the outskirts of the city of Falluja, in the province of Anbar, Iraq July 12, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

BAGHDAD/ERBI, Jul 16:As Iraqi forces prepare to try to recapture the city of Falluja, tens of thousands of civilians find themselves trapped between Islamic State militants ready to use them as human shields and a government suspicious of their loyalties.
With the jihadists coercing them to stay, and a government blockade and shelling closing exit routes and cutting off supplies, there is “a vice, a noose around the neck of the population”, Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, told Reuters.
Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim-led government on Monday announced the start of operations to “liberate Anbar”, the province west of Baghdad whose Sunni Muslim cities and towns along the Euphrates have since last year become strongholds of Islamic State.
“Since military operations began, it has become impossible to leave,” said one 42-year-old teacher.
“They (Islamic State) have planted bombs at the entrance and exits to the city and on the main roads to prevent security forces entering or citizens leaving.”
Communication with those still inside Falluja is increasingly difficult. The teacher was afraid to let his name be used, and his comments were relayed to Reuters by a friend.
Baghdad’s last military push against Islamic State, to retake Tikrit in April, came after most citizens had fled.
Leaders of the Shi’ite militias fighting alongside Iraq’s army say Falluja’s civilians will be evacuated before the final push, but, in a climate of fear, residents are not confident.
This week, hundreds of fighters who said they had come from Syria and the northern Iraqi city of Mosul paraded through Falluja, said the teacher, whose account of Islamic State’s tight control was echoed by other sources. Preachers in mosques were warning people not to cooperate with security forces and, after prayers, Islamists were delivering “jihadist lectures”.
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Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi security analyst, said Islamic State had this week confiscated the identity papers of up to 50,000 people to stop them leaving, and that it was extremely difficult to escape either Falluja, seized by Islamic State early last year, or nearby Ramadi.
The teacher said the Islamists, who have declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, were in effect holding the population hostage to “attract the sympathy of jihadists worldwide” when the government assault came.
A 49-year-old taxi driver inside the city said fruit, meat and vegetables were becoming harder to find since roads into the city were blocked. Umm Asma, a housewife, said she was rationing food to her family in case there was a long siege.
Some people are still managing to make perilous escapes from Falluja, however; Reuters spoke to four families who said they had left this week.
Ahmed Abdul-Rahman, a 48-year-old taxi driver, said he had run the gauntlet of heavy bombardment when he found an exit north of the city to bring out his wife and two children three days earlier.
“We still can’t believe that we have left Falluja,” he said. “We have left everything behind: the car, the house and the furniture.”

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