BAGHDAD - Civilians caught up in fighting between security forces and Shi'ite militiamen in a Baghdad slum are running out of food, water and medicine and relief agencies are unable to bring in supplies, officials said on Thursday.
But aid officials and an Iraqi government spokesman denied reports there had been a mass displacement of residents from Sadr City, home to 2 million people and the stronghold of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia.
They said it was too dangerous to get aid into the district in eastern Baghdad, where weeks of clashes have killed hundreds of people. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, seeking to impose law and order, launched a crackdown on militias in late March.
Dana Graber Ladek, a displacement specialist on Iraq at the U.N. International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Amman, said around 500 families had fled when U.S. and Iraqi operations against militiamen began.
"Since then, very few Iraqis have been able to leave due to curfews and ... insecurity," Ladek said by telephone.
"We need that corridor open to allow aid in, by U.S. and Iraqi forces ... by everyone involved in the conflict."
Ladek said relief was need urgently. Public distribution of food rations had stopped while prices of basic food items were rising.
Water and medical services were also falling short in the affected areas, especially since a U.S. missile strike near a Sadr City hospital on Saturday damaged a number of ambulances.
"Much ... depends on how long this (conflict) goes on for ... If it goes on for very long ... we risk some more serious consequences like an epidemic of cholera or malnutrition."
Maliki's crackdown was initially launched in the southern Shi'ite city of Basra, where the Mehdi Army put up stiff resistance for a week until Sadr ordered his fighters off the street. But fighting has continued in Baghdad's Sadr City.
Tahseen al-Sheikhli, the government's civilian spokesman for security operations in Baghdad, accused gunmen of attacking convoys trying to bring aid in.
"Who is responsible for the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Sadr City? Isn't it the armed groups?" he said.
"We have done our best to let food aid reach affected families but they are in areas of fighting and we can't even send forces to secure them because militants will attack us."
Saeed Haqi, head of the Iraqi Red Crescent, said fewer than 1,000 families had fled Sadr City since the operations began, adding that most of those had gone to stay with relatives.
Some residents said Iraqi security forces had used loudspeakers urging people to leave their homes -- perhaps signaling a major offensive was imminent -- but Sheikhli and a spokesman from Sadr's office in the slum denied this.
Iraqi security officials gave conflicting accounts of whether loudspeakers had been used to warn people to flee while the U.S. military said it had no information on the reports.
Maliki, himself a Shi'ite, says the crackdown is to disarm militias, but Sadr's followers sees it as an attempt to sideline the cleric's mass movement before local elections in October.
The prime minister caught his American backers off-guard with his offensive in Basra, but after early military setbacks, it has gone well. Political leaders across Iraq's sectarian and ethnic divide -- apart from the Sadrists, who control 10 percent of seats in parliament -- have backed Maliki's campaign.
Sadr last month threatened to formally scrap a ceasefire he imposed on the Mehdi Army last August. But then a couple of weeks later he urged his followers to observe the truce, leaving many guessing about his true intentions.
Sadr, in his 30s, is a fervent nationalist who has a zealous following among young and dispossessed Shi'ites.
Additional reporting by Aseel Kami, Khalid al-Ansary and Wisam Mohammed; writing by Tim Cocks and Dean Yates, editing by Ralph Boulton
© 2008 Reuters