ICRC team makes limited Falluja visit

A team from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has paid a short visit to Falluja for the first time since a US-led attack on the Iraqi city last month.

    The ICRC's visit was the first since November's offensive

    The Iraqi aid workers were unable to meet families in the devastated city during the visit on Tuesday, but they spoke to local water and sewerage officials who painted a grim picture of the sanitation conditions, an ICRC spokesperson said on Thursday.

    "Seven of our local colleagues went into Falluja, into the centre of the city, for a few hours," spokesperson Florian Westphal said.

    Security fears

    Access to Falluja, west of Baghdad, has been severely limited for relief agencies due to security fears following a major US-led assault launched on 8 November.

    The fighting, which drove most of Falluja's 250,000 people from their homes, still flares in pockets in the south, and the ICRC team had to meet the US military to check on security before being able to venture inside. 

    Over 2000 people were killed in
    the Falluja onslaught last month

    The aid agency, with its proud reputation of neutrality in conflict zones, insisted that it did not want an armed escort, but US soldiers said it was too dangerous for a civilian vehicle to travel unaccompanied, the spokesman said. 

    As a result, US army vehicles drove slightly ahead of the ICRC team when it ventured through Falluja's battle-scarred neighbourhoods.

    "This is something we will take up with the US authorities again," said Westphal, noting that the ICRC "would like to be able to act independently and to be seen to be acting independently". 

    Sanitation conditions

    Once inside, the relief workers met public works officials from
    Falluja and witnessed first-hand raw sewage flowing in the deserted streets. 

    "They talked to a number of technicians of the water and sewage boards who told them ... basically that the water treatment facilities and sewage systems had been damaged and are currently not functioning," Westphal said. 

    "[ICRC ]would like to be able to act independently and to be seen to be acting independently"

    Florian Westphal,
    ICRC spokesperson

    The US-led offensive severely damaged Falluja's already dilapidated public works infrastructure, which the ICRC is determined to help fix. 

    "We are now looking at what we can do to help to repair these structures... Hopefully we will be able to do something about that very quickly," Westphal said, adding that the ICRC would provide support to local officials. 

    Looking for families

    During the snapshot of life inside Falluja, the ICRC team said they saw very few civilians and were unable to speak to any of the remaining families due to security fears expressed by the US military. 

    But the team did manage to visit a small clinic set up inside a
    mosque.

    "There was not anybody being treated at that time but it does seem as though this is the only health facility that is available inside the city," said Westphal, noting that the US-Iraqi controlled Falluja general hospital appeared to remain out of bounds. 

    The Iraqi Red Crescent Society, a local partner to the
    Geneva-based ICRC, finally were able to deliver some aid directly to people stranded inside Falluja by the conflict at the end of November.

    SOURCE: AFP


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