The Iraqi offensive to retake Fallujah threatened the lives of thousands of civilians trapped in the ISIS stronghold, the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross warned this week.
"Fallujah must not be allowed to become another Ramadi," Katherine Ritz, the top Red Cross representative in Iraq, said in reference to the city west of Fallujah that was left a ghost town following the siege by the Iraqi security forces earlier this year.
"Civilians must be spared and allowed to leave Fallujah safely, while houses and other civilian infrastructure must not be targeted," Ritz said in a statement Monday.
The UN also warned against attacks that failed to take into account the risk to civilians.
"We're very concerned about the fate of the civilians that remain in Fallujah as the military operations are undertaken," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters. The humanitarian situation obviously remains very fluid."
The UN estimated there were about 50,000 civilians left in Fallujah, a city of about 300,000 before the U.S. invasion in 2003. The American military has estimated that Fallujah’s population could range from 60,000 to 90,000, while other estimates range from as low as 25,000 to as high as 100,000.
Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria, of ISIS, took Fallujah against little resistance in January 2014, making it the Iraqi city held longest by the militants. The fall of the city resonated in the U.S. military. In 2004, nearly 100 U.S. troops were killed in vicious street fighting to take the city.
According to Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Baghdad, Fallujah is believed to be defended by about 800-1,200 ISIS fighter who have built up defenses with interlocking fields of fire and improvised explosive devices. ISIS snipers were also preventing civilians from fleeing, Warren said.
Fallujah had not been a priority in the overall U.S. and Iraqi strategy that focused on retaking northwestern Mosul, the main ISIS stronghold in Iraq, but the plan changed in recent weeks as ISIS used Fallujah as a base to launch a wave a suicide truck and car bomb attacks in Baghdad that led to a political crisis for the central government.
Last week, Warren said that U.S. commanders had to talk Iraqi forces out of withdrawing troops from the field to protect the capital, but on Sunday Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that the offensive to retake Fallujah had begun.
In a TV address that day, Abadi said, "We will tear down the black banners of the strangers who kidnapped the city. The clock of Fallujah liberation has rung, and the final victory is close."
On Tuesday, Iraqi forces reportedly were hitting Fallujah with artillery. The Washington Post quoted Lt. Gen. Raeed Shakir Jawdat, the Iraqi federal police commander, as saying that the offensive had already killed scores of ISIS fighters in fighting for outlying villages.
"Now the enemy is collapsing, and we are hunting them," Jawdat said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.