Iraqi forces continued to bombard the Iraqi city of Fallujah for a second-straight day in an effort to retake the town from the Islamic State, as humanitarian organizations warned that civilians remained trapped amid the fighting.
"No one can leave. It's dangerous. There are snipers everywhere along the exit routes," one resident told Reuters by internet from the town, which is just 30 miles from Baghdad.
About 100,000 civilians are estimated to be in Fallujah which, in January 2014, became the first Iraqi city to be captured by Islamic State, six months before the group declared its caliphate. The population was three times bigger before the war.
The Iraqi military said it had dislodged the militants from Garma, a village to the east, overnight. No casualties were reported by the army or the city's main hospital. On Monday, eight civilians and three militants were killed, and 25 people wounded, 20 of them civilians, according to the hospital.
The UN's humanitarian agency, or UNHCR, said that around 10,000 families were unable to leave the besieged city and were in "a very precarious situation."
A video from an Iraqi Shiite militia showed militiamen massing outside Fallujah and rocket and artillery bombardments.
UNHCR's assistant representative in Iraq, Leila Jane Nassif, said more than 80 families had managed to escape the town, and were being screened by Iraqi security forces as they crossed the frontlines to government held territory.
"Screenings are ideally completed in two days but we remain concerned for the safety of men who are separated as well as their wives and children who are in an especially vulnerable situation," she said in a statement.
Human rights groups have voiced concerns that the Iraqi government forces attacking the majority Sunni town are augmented by Shiite militias backed by Iran. During a similar siege of Tikrit last year, Reuters documented the lynching of an Islamic State fighter by Iraqi federal police. The Reuters report also described widespread incidents of looting and arson in the city, which local politicians blamed on the Iranian-backed militias.
Iraqi officials say the militias, grouped under a loose government umbrella to help boost the army and police following partial collapses since 2014, would be restricted to operating outside the city limits.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander General Qassem Suleimani is allegedly assisting those militias, and showed up in photos taken at an operations room outside Fallujah, with senior militia commanders.
Suleimani's high profile visit provided a stark example of the US and Iran's shared strategic objectives in ejecting Islamic State from a city so close to Baghdad, even as US officials criticize what they say is Iran's malevolent involvement in Iraq.
The US-led coalition "is providing air power to support the Iraqi government forces in Fallujah," its spokesman, US Army Colonel Steve Warren, told Reuters by phone. Another spokesperson made clear that US air support would not provide assistance to the Iranian-backed militias, and that US military advisors training Iraqis would not be on the ground with Iraqi security forces around Fallujah.
In addition to the UN statement, the International Committee of the Red Cross issued a statement on Monday evening appealing for the warring parties to protect civilians, who have limited access to food, water, and healthcare and who now risk being used as human shields.
Resourceful residents have begun appropriating solar panels affixed to street lights to generate power in their homes.
Even the militants have had to scrounge and conserve supplies, collecting plastic objects to turn into makeshift fuel and conducting patrols on bicycle, residents told Reuters.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the armed forces had been "instructed to preserve the lives of citizens in Fallujah and protect public and private property."
"Those who cannot take the exit routes, they can stay at home and not move," he added in comments aired by state Iraqi TV while on a visit to a field command center near Fallujah.
The Association of Muslim Scholars of Iraq, a hardline political organisation formed in 2003 to represent minority Sunnis, on Monday condemned the campaign as "an unjust aggression, a reflection of the vengeful spirit that the forces of evil harbour against this city."
It said in a statement nearly 10,000 residents had been killed or wounded by government shelling over the past two years, which Reuters could not verify, and warned any victory would be "illusory."
The military campaign could take "many weeks, if not longer," predicted Ranj Alaaldin, an Iraq expert at the London School of Economics, due to lingering support for Islamic State among many residents who may still prefer the militants to a Baghdad government long perceived as sectarian and repressive.
Abadi ordered the offensive despite concerns that it could divert resources from a push later this year to retake Mosul, Islamic State's de facto capital in Iraq.
"You do not need Fallujah in order to get Mosul," Warren, the anti-IS coalition spokesman, said in a phone interview at the weekend.
A series of bombings that killed more than 150 people in one week in Baghdad, the highest death toll so far this year, cranked up the pressure on Abadi to do something about the city seen by many Shiite politicians as an irredeemable bulwark of Sunni Muslim militancy.
"The intelligence indicates that this recent IS resurgence in Baghdad through some sleeper cells originated from Fallujah," said senior lawmaker and former national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie. "Fallujah is too close to Baghdad."
Reuters could not independently verify that claim and the authorities have not publicly made such statements.