Middle East

Iraq: 'Abuse by all sides' in Anbar province says HRW

Iraqi Sunni families fleeing the violence with their belongings stop at a checkpoint in the city of Falluja Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Iraqi Sunni families say they have been able to flee Falluja with "extreme difficulty"

Human rights activists have condemned abuses by both government troops and insurgents in Iraq's Anbar province.

"Apparently unlawful methods of fighting by all sides have caused civilian casualties," Human Rights Watch said in a report.

The rights group criticised Iraqi forces and militants for carrying out attacks in residential areas.

It comes as troops prepare to launch a major assault against al-Qaeda-linked militants in the city of Falluja.

Sunni militants allied to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as well as armed tribesmen angry with the government, overran Falluja last week after clashes triggered by a raid on protest camps in the city and in the provincial capital, Ramadi.

'Caught in the middle'

HRW said that according to witness reports, Iraqi troops had fired "mortar and gunfire into residential areas, in some cases with apparently no al-Qaeda presence".

The rights group quoted an employee in Falluja's main hospital as saying mortar fire from army shelling had killed 25 residents and injured 190 since the fighting began.

"The government urgently needs to deal with the threat from al-Qaeda, but killing their own citizens unlawfully is not the way," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW regional director

"Civilians have been caught in the middle in Anbar, and the government appears to be doing nothing to protect them," she said.

HRW also echoed concerns expressed by the UN on Wednesday that a government blockade of Falluja and Ramadi was limiting access to food, water and fuel.

Anbar's provincial council has described the humanitarian situation in Falluja as "catastrophic".

Iraqi forces are reported to have surrounded the city, closing the main eastern, northern, and southern checkpoints.

Thousands of families have fled the fighting, the UN and NGOs report.

Families with children told HRW they were allowed to leave the city but only with "extreme difficulty". Single men are not being permitted to leave.

One Ramadi resident told HRW that residents feared a "huge battle" was soon to come.

'Brink of civil war'

The upsurge in violence began on 30 December, when security forces cleared a year-old Sunni protest camp.

The fighting spread to Falluja, and militants moved in and seized control of the city and parts of Ramadi.

Iraq's minority Sunni Arab community has long complained that it is being marginalised by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Shia-led government and unfairly targeted by the security forces.

Correspondents say the prime minister's drive to restore control of Falluja and Ramadi is being seen by many Sunnis as an attempt at domination and oppression, and is taking Iraq back to the brink of a sectarian civil war.