Iraqi air strikes kill 19 around militant-held Falluja

Photo: Iraqi air strikes kill 19 around militant-held Falluja
 / Arab World

Iraqi government air strikes killed 19 people, including children, in Falluja on Monday and Tuesday, a health official in the militant-held city said.

The Iraqi army has been shelling Falluja, 70 km (44 miles) west of Baghdad, for months, trying to drive out Sunni militants from the group now known as Islamic State. The insurgents, backed by discontented local Sunni tribal leaders, overran the city in January, Reuters reported.

Ahmed al-Shami, spokesman for the Falluja health office - the local arm of the health ministry - said the 19 dead included women and children and that Falluja hospital had also received 38 wounded people since Monday evening.

Residents of Falluja and the nearby town of Garma said helicopters fired artillery and dropped three barrel bombs on Falluja and two on Garma.

Barrel bombs - powerful makeshift weapons made from high explosives, cement and metal parts packed into oil drums, usually dropped from helicopters - have gained notoriety in the region because of their use in neighboring Syria by President Bashar al-Assad's forces to flatten buildings in rebel-held area.

Scores of people have died since January in what residents describe as massive indiscriminate bombardment. In May, witnesses in Falluja and a mid-level security officer in Anbar province said barrel bombs had been dropped on the city.

The government denies indiscriminate attacks, saying it targets insurgents, but a mid-level security officer in Anbar province has previously confirmed that barrel bombs have been dropped on Falluja.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's military spokesman, Lieutenant General Qassim Atta, was not immediately available to comment on this week's attacks.

Some 560,000 people have fled Anbar province - the large area of western Iraq where Falluja is located - since the Islamic State takeover in January, according to New York-based humanitarian organization, the International Rescue Committee.

Islamic State took a further vast swathe of northern territory last month that caused large numbers of government soldiers to desert their units and run for their lives, shifting the main battleground in a civil war pitting the Shi'ite-led Baghdad government against a well-equipped Sunni insurgency.

Maliki's office said on Tuesday he had met Sunni tribal leaders from several provinces where the conflict is raging. Anger with Maliki's government has encouraged some Sunni armed groups to stick with the hardline Islamic State despite ideological differences, officials and tribal leaders say.

The conflict, which threatens to break up Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines, has killed almost 5,600 civilians this year, according to the latest United Nations figures.

In the town of Abu al-Khaseeb, south of the predominantly Shi'ite city of Basra, gunmen broke into a Sunni mosque on Tuesday during prayers, killing the preacher and kidnapping four men who were praying, police sources said.

The body of one of the kidnapped men was found dumped on the side of a road near the mosque, the sources said.

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