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Human rights worries as US presses Iraq over standoff

10 January, 2014

FALLUJAH: Fighting in two Iraqi cities sparked warnings on Thursday of rights abuses and a worsening humanitarian crisis, as Washington piled pressure on Baghdad to quell a surge in militant violence.

The UN and NGOs warned of a lack of access to key supplies during a government blockade of Fallujah and parts of the Anbar provincial capital Ramadi, where militants have seized control from the authorities.

The standoff and a protracted surge in nationwide violence are among the biggest threats to face Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki during his eight-year rule and come just months before the country's first general election in four years.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned abuses by all sides in the Anbar clashes, criticising Iraqi government forces for using what it alleged was indiscriminate mortar fire in civilian neighbourhoods, and militants for deploying in and attacking from populated areas.

"Apparently unlawful methods of fighting by all sides have caused civilian casualties and severe property damage," the New York-based group said in a statement.

Fallujah and parts of nearby Ramadi, both former insurgent bastions in Anbar, have been outside government hands for days the first time militants have exercised such open control in major cities since the insurgency that followed the 2003 US-led invasion.

The al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been active in the Anbar fighting, but so have anti-government tribes.

The security forces have meanwhile recruited their own tribal allies in the fighting that has raged in Anbar for more than a week and killed more than 250 people.

HRW also echoed concerns from the UN and other NGOs that blockades of Fallujah and Ramadi were limiting access to key supplies of food, water and fuel.

The Iraqi Red Crescent said it had provided humanitarian assistance to more than 8,000 families across Anbar but that upwards of 13,000 had fled. Some families have sought refuge in the neighbouring province of Karbala and, according to HRW, as far away as the northern Kurdish region.

In Washington, US Vice President Joe Biden called Maliki for the second time this week, mounting pressure on the Iraqi premier over the unrest. Biden urged Maliki to "continue the Iraqi government's outreach to local, tribal, and national leaders," following the loss of Fallujah, the White House said in a statement.

Spokesman Jay Carney said Washington was pressing Maliki, a Shiite, to focus on political reconciliation as well as take military action to expel militant groups from Fallujah and Ramadi.

Critics of the White House, however, blame President Barack Obama for failing to agree a deal with Maliki's government to leave a residual US force behind after withdrawing all American troops from Iraq at the end of 2011. Traffic police returned to Fallujah's streets, some shops reopened and more cars could be seen on Wednesday, but the city was still rocked by clashes and shelling, after ISIL urged Sunnis to keep fighting the Shiite-led government.

An Iraqi military spokesman has said an assault on Fallujah was on hold for fear of civilian casualties.

Attacking the Sunni-majority city would be a significant test for Iraqi security forces, who have yet to undertake such a major operation without the backing of US troops. It would also be extremely sensitive politically, as it would inflame already high tensions between the Sunni Arab minority and the Shiite-led government.

Fallujah was the target of two major assaults in 2004 in which US forces saw some of their heaviest fighting since the Vietnam War.

They eventually wrested back control of Anbar with the support of Sunni tribesmen who allied with US troops against Al-Qaeda from late 2006. But Sunni militants have regained strength, bolstered by the war in neighbouring Syria and widespread Sunni Arab anger with the federal government.

End.

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