As civilians continue to flee fighting between US Marines and insurgents in the central Iraqi city of Fallujah, they seem to be taking some of the conflict with them to surrounding villages, according to a French aid agency worker.
Reports indicate that up to 700 people have been killed in fierce fighting over the last three weeks between US Marines and anti-Coalition insurgents in the city, 50 km west of Baghdad. Up until a few days ago there was a lull in the fighting, in which some 2,000 insurgents have battled against US forces.
Up to 100,000 people have fled the area to live with friends and relatives in surrounding villages and in Baghdad, according to aid agencies.
One village west of Fallujah was reportedly surrounded by Coalition forces looking for fighters in the past week, said Baptiste Martin, an aid worker at Premiere Urgence, a French NGO.
Another village, where the Iraqi Red Crescent was planning to set up a camp for displaced people, was allegedly under attack by Coalition forces, Martin said. He declined to give specific information about the sites to protect the civilians staying there.
"We're concerned about the problems (in these villages) because some people staying in Baghdad are trying to go back to them to be closer to their houses in Fallujah," Martin told IRIN in Baghdad.
Iraqi Ministry of Trade workers are concerned about ensuring food they send gets to refugees, said Ahmet al-Mukhtar, a ministry spokesman. People all across Iraq receive a monthly food ration under the former UN-administered Oil-for-Food programme. The Commission of Islamic Clergymen in Baghdad is coordinating daily bread deliveries along with one month's worth of an additional food rations for civilians displaced by fighting, he said. Some 12 truckloads of supplies went to the city following initial problems.
"The problem for the people still in Fallujah is, they don't have fuel to cook, or water. So that's what we're arranging with the Commission of Islamic Clergymen to have the truckload of bread going in every day," al-Mukhtar said. "We agreed with the army that they would let the trucks in once they are inspected."
The Iraqi Red Crescent is planning aid for three months at a temporary camp set up in the al-Hadhra district of western Baghdad for people who fled the fighting, said Mohammed Ibrahim, deputy director of the programme. Workers hope things will be resolved within the next week to 10 days, he said, although there are no signs that the fighting will come to an end.
In the south, aid agencies feel they have stockpiled enough medical supplies for whatever may happen in the city of Najaf. US-led troops there have said they will capture or kill Moqtada Sadr, an outspoken cleric wanted for the killing of another cleric. More than 40 Iraqis were killed in recent fighting in Najaf.
One hospital in Najaf had been occupied by Coalition forces for at least the last 10 days, making aid agencies scramble to set up an alternative operating area, said Dr Naeema al-Gasseer, director of the UN World Health Organization's Iraq programme based in Amman, Jordan.
"We know the access to care is a problem, and we know there are road blockages. There might be a shortage of vehicles, especially of ambulances," al-Gasseer told IRIN.
At the same time, the health organisation and the Iraqi Ministry of Health have sent enough medical kits to serve a population of 10,000 for the next three months, al-Gasseer said. Blood is in storage in clinics around Najaf and aid workers have said the city has "sufficient" medical supplies.
Despite the upsurge in fighting and tension in central and southern Iraq, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with the help of NGOs, was continuing to distribute emergency relief items to people displaced from Fallujah.
Through NGOs such as Première Urgence, Islamic Relief and Intersos, over recent weeks the UN refugee agency has distributed more than 6,500 blankets, over 1,100 cooking stoves, 3,000 mattresses, 1,000 plastic tarpaulins, 1,000 female hygiene kits and 375 jerry cans to displaced people. Five medical kits with basic supplies for more than 50,000 people have been distributed around Baghdad and Najaf, together with additional medical supplies.
However, over recent days some NGOs have decided that it was just too dangerous for them to stay in the country.
According to one aid worker, most of the international NGOs have pulled out of the south. "We all feel desperately sad - its like we are abandoning the country and our Iraqi friends, but such is the world we live in. I personally would like to go back at a later date maybe early next year or sooner depending on what's happening on the 'street'," Anna Presswell, the programme coordinator of the Iraq Marshlands Restoration Programme told IRIN.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed to all the parties in Iraq to refrain from violence, respect international humanitarian law and give the political transition a chance, saying it was time now for those who prefer "restraint and dialogue" to make their voices
"There is nothing cowardly or fainthearted about this approach," the Secretary-General told a press conference at UN Headquarters in New York. "Those who venture into violent situations in the course of peace run just as high a risk as the soldiers do," he said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions