FALLUJA, Iraq -- Fighting in Falluja has created a humanitarian disaster in which innocent people are dying because medical help cannot reach them, aid workers in Iraq said today.
In one case, a pregnant woman and her child died in a refugee camp west of the city after the mother unexpectedly aborted and no doctors were on hand, Firdoos al-Ubadi, an official from the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, said.
In another case, a young boy died from a snake bite that would normally have been easily treatable, she said.
Smoke billows from US targeted areas in the restive Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah, Thursday, November 11,2004. (AFP/Patrick Baz)
"From a humanitarian point of view it's a disaster, there's no other way to describe it. And if we don't do something about it soon, it's going to spread to other cities," she said.
About 10,000 US soldiers and 2,000 Iraqi troops are fighting to wrest control of Falluja, 50km west of Baghdad, back from insurgents.
At least 2,200 families have fled Falluja in recent days and are struggling to survive without enough water, food or medicine in nearby towns and villages, she said.
Some families have fled as far as Tikrit, about 150km north of Falluja.
But the biggest concern is people in and around Falluja itself they can't be reached because US and Iraqi forces have set up a wide cordon around the city to prevent anyone from entering and any insurgents from fleeing.
It is unclear how many civilians are left in Falluja, but the US military estimates 150,000, or half the entire population, have fled the city since they began shaping up for an offensive in October.
The Muslim Clerics' Association estimates about 60,000 people are still there but it is unknown how they arrived at the figure and because of the chaos no official numbers are available.
Many of those who fled are with relatives and do not show up in refugee statistics.
NO SUPPLIES, NO HELP
Between a nightly curfew and the danger of venturing on to the streets, many are effectively trapped at home.
"We've asked for permission from the Americans to go into the city and help the people there but we haven't heard anything back from them," Ubadi said. "There's no medicine, no water, no electricity. They need our help."
The Red Crescent Society has teams of doctors and relief experts ready to go in to each of Falluja's districts with essential aid, but needs US approval first.
The US military was not immediately available to comment on the aid agency's request, but has said its first priority is to defeat the rebels holed up in Falluja.
An offensive was launched late on Monday and in furious street-to-street fighting since, US forces have battled their way into the heart of Falluja's most rebellious district.
Commanders say they are doing everything they can to minimize civilian losses, but it is not always possible.
This week, a 9-year-old boy died after being hit in the stomach by shrapnel. His parents were unable to get him to hospital because of the fighting and so resorted to wrapping a sheet around him to stem the blood flow.
He died hours later of blood loss and was buried in the garden of the family home.
"We buried him in the garden because it was too dangerous to go out," said his father, teacher Mohammed Abboud. "We did not know how long the fighting would last."
The International Committee for the Red Cross says there are thousands of elderly and women and children who have had no food or water for days. At least 20,000 have gathered in the town of Saqlawiya, south of Falluja.
"The Red Cross is very worried. We urge all combatants to guarantee passage to those who need medical care, regardless of whether they are friends or enemies," spokesman Ahmad al-Raoui said. "They must be allowed to return home as soon as possible."
Aid workers say there are still hundreds of families left in the city, which has been pummeled by sustained aerial bombardment and artillery fire in recent days.
"We know of at least 157 families inside Falluja who need our help," said Ubadi.
For some it is already too late.
One mother and her three daughters had intended to flee but their home was hit by a bombardment earlier this week and all died, neighbors who escaped told aid workers.
© Copyright 2004 Reuters Ltd