Government Blocking Residents Fleeing Fighting

News and Press Release
Originally published

Humanitarian Crisis in Anbar Province

(Baghdad, May 4, 2014) – The Iraqi government is exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in Anbar Province by hindering residents from leaving areas where fighting is taking place and impeding aid from getting in, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should immediately facilitate safe passage for residents who want to flee the fighting and halt restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Eight residents of Fallujah or Ramadi, Anbar’s two main cities, told Human Rights Watch that, between January and April 2014, they saw government forces shoot residents who were trying to leave or return to Anbar, killing some of them. It is unclear whether armed opposition forces were in those areas at the time of these attacks but witnesses gave consistent accounts of what they said was, at the very least, indiscriminate government fire.

“The government should be helping people trapped by the fighting, not keeping them in harm’s way and denying them aid,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Anbar residents are caught in a nightmare and the government is only making it worse.”

Fighting in Anbar between government forces and various Sunni armed groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), has been ongoing since January 2014. According to the United Nations, the fighting has displaced more than 400,000 of the province’s estimated 750,000 people, many of them still trapped in conflict areas. From the 72,910 families registered as displaced, at least 51,000 are still in in Anbar.

The fighting in Anbar posed major obstacles to the voting there during national elections on April 30, Human Rights Watch said. Voter turnout in Anbar was reportedly under 30 percent.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned ISIS for its deliberate attacks on civilians across Iraq, which likely amount to crimes against humanity. The armed group has claimed responsibility for attacks targeting civilians, including an April 25 attack on an election campaign rally in Baghdad that killed more than 30 people and at least eight attacks on polling centers on April 28, when army and other security officers voted.

On election day, violence reportedly prevented many people from voting, particularly in Sunni and mixed Sunni-Shia areas. A suicide bomb in Tikrit killed five people and a bomb in Kirkuk killed two women. Explosives destroyed two polling stations in Beiji and shells were fired at polling stations in Diyala, local media reported. Polling stations in several majority Sunni areas in Baghdad province, including Adhamiyya, Abu Ghraib, Latifiyya, and Yousifiyya, remained closed throughout the day, according to local politicians and to residents’ reports to Human Rights Watch.

In March, the UN mission chief in Iraq reported that armed groups in Ramadi had placed booby-traps in residential buildings and along roads, preventing displaced families from returning to their homes.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 42 Anbar residents, 35 of whom had been forced to flee their homes and 7 of whom had remained in Ramadi and Fallujah, as well as 4 government officials and representatives from 6 international humanitarian organizations working in Iraq. Human Rights Watch could not visit Anbar province due to the ongoing hostilities.

Human Rights Watch was unable to establish accurate casualty figures from the four months of fighting. On April 25, the director of Fallujah General Hospital told the media that the hospital had recorded the killing or wounding of 1,418 people since the start of the fighting, mostly from shelling of Fallujah’s residential neighborhoods. An employee of the hospital told Human Rights Watch on April 27 that the hospital had recorded 262 deaths since January, “most of them civilians.” Between 40 and 50 percent of those recorded by the hospital as having been killed were women and children, he said.

On March 27, the UN reported that the medical directorate for Anbar province had tallied the killings of 336 civilians and wounding of 1,562 civilians since the conflict began, and on May 1 announced that the Anbar Health Directorate reported 135 killed and 525 injured in Anbar in April, with 57 killed and 265 injured in Ramadi and 78 killed and 260 injured in Fallujah.

Anbar residents, medical professionals, and aid workers told Human Rights Watch that casualty figures are likely to be much higher because many people cannot reach hospitals due to the fighting. Some do not go to the hospitals because they fear harassment by government forces or government attacks on the hospitals, they said.

The UN has reported that “on at least one occasion” government shelling hit Fallujah General Hospital. The Fallujah hospital employee Human Rights Watch interviewed said government mortars and tank shells had hit the hospital a number of times since January, including the emergency room, intensive care unit, radiology department, and central air conditioning unit. He said that no one was killed in the attacks but that four Bangladeshi hospital staff, three Iraqi doctors, and some patients had been wounded. Human Rights Watch could not confirm the employee’s account but reviewed five photographs of what appeared to be a mortar lodged in the destroyed air conditioning unit.

The hospital employee said armed men he did not know guard the hospital compound and other institutions in Fallujah, but he had never seen them enter the hospital or use the grounds as a base. A doctor from the hospital interviewed in March, as well as Fallujah residents who have been in the hospital periodically over the past four months, also said they had not seen armed men inside the hospital.

Since early March, the army has closed all roads leading into Fallujah, except for a narrow footbridge from Saqlawiyya, a town to the northwest. One Fallujah resident said the government was also allowing foot traffic across a bridge to the south of Amiriyat al-Fallujah, but only for about one hour at a time.

The government should stop preventing people from fleeing the fighting in Anbar, and provide shelter, food, medical supplies, and other necessities to displaced people inside the province, Human Rights Watch said.

“Armed groups should be held accountable for what amount to crimes against humanity, but their crimes in no way excuse government forces punishing civilians in Sunni areas,” Stork said.

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