More than 13,000 families have fled Fallujah in the past few days amid clashes and shelling after the city fell to al-Qaeda-linked militants, the Iraqi Red Crescent said on Wednesday.
Masked gunmen remained in control of Iraq’s Fallujah Wednesday even as traffic police returned to the city’s streets after a jihadi group urged to keep fighting the government.
Fallujah and parts of the Anbar provincial capital Ramadi farther west have been outside government hands for days – the first time militants have exercised such open control in major cities since the height of the insurgency that followed the 2003 US-led invasion.
Red Crescent official Mohammed al-Khuzaie said in a statement that the organization had provided humanitarian assistance to more than 8,000 families in the past three days across the Anbar province.
“Most of them are now living in schools, public buildings or with relatives,” Khuzaie said.
Earlier on Wednesday, two areas of Fallujah saw brief clashes and shelling, witnesses said, but it was not immediately clear who was involved in the fighting.
The traffic police, whose sole responsibility is directing vehicles and controlling intersections, were back on the streets in several parts of central Fallujah, an AFP journalist reported.
They were apparently back on duty with the blessing of the gunmen, whose allegiance was not immediately clear.
The gunmen were deployed in areas around the edge of the city, at the entrances of neighborhoods, and on bridges – including one from which the bodies of American contractors were infamously hung in 2004, prompting the first of two US assaults on Fallujah that year.
Some shops in the city reopened, and light traffic returned to the streets. But the city still faces the threat of an assault by soldiers deployed nearby.
The al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has been active in Fallujah, but so have anti-government tribes.
The security forces have meanwhile recruited their own tribal allies in the fighting that has raged in Anbar province for more than a week and killed over 250 people.
Near the provincial capital Ramadi, soldiers backed by helicopters battled gunmen in the Khaldiyah area, a police captain said.
The fighting came after the release late Tuesday of an audio recording purportedly from ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani urging Sunnis to continue fighting the Shia-led government.
“Oh Sunni people, you were forced to take up the weapon,” Adnani said.
“Do not lay the weapon down, because if you put it down this time, the [Shias] will enslave you and you will not rise again.”
Defense ministry spokesman Staff Lieutenant General Mohammed al-Askari said Tuesday that soldiers deployed near Fallujah would hold off on assaulting the city for now for fear of civilian casualties.
Attacking the city would also be extremely sensitive politically, as it would inflame already high tensions between the Sunni minority and the government.
And it would be a major test for Iraqi security forces, which have yet to undertake such a major operation without the backing of US troops, who withdrew in December 2011.
Iraqi officials have said ISIS militants are holding Fallujah, and witnesses have seen the group’s fighters in the city.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has called on Fallujah residents to expel the jihadis to stave off a military offensive.
But some tribal leaders say the city is in the hands of armed tribesmen.
Tribesmen “are fighting to protect Fallujah and Garma (to its east) against army attacks,” Rafa al-Jumaili said on Wednesday.
Both Ramadi and Fallujah were insurgent strongholds in the years after 2003, and Fallujah was the target of two major assaults in which US forces saw some of their heaviest fighting since the Vietnam War.
They eventually wrested back control of Anbar with the support of tribesmen who formed the Sahwa militias, which allied with US troops against al-Qaeda from late 2006.
But two years after US forces withdrew from Iraq, militant groups have regained strength, bolstered by the war in neighboring Syria and anger with the federal government.
Fighting erupted near Ramadi on December 30, when security forces cleared a year-old protest camp.
The violence spread to Fallujah, and militants moved in and seized the city and parts of Ramadi after security forces withdrew.