Iraqis emerge amid the ruins of Falluja

Relief agencies which finally reached Falluja found a city in ruins and its remaining civilian population beleaguered and hungry.

    The Red Crescent was allowed entry to Falluja on Wednesday

    Muhammad Chibib pleaded with the marine colonel, coaxing him a little further down the street to another house.

    Behind him a family of seven stood at their gate, clutching their first fresh food and water in days.

    "Please colonel, you have just one more family here," said Chibib, a staff member with the Iraqi Red Crescent Society which only on Wednesday set up offices in the shattered city of Falluja. 

    For the first time since a massive US-led assault was launched against the city, Red Crescent aid has just reached those Iraqis who were unable to escape in the weeks leading up to the offensive and who were trapped in their homes. 

    Six houses down, a man emerged with his wife and three children, according to an AFP photographer. More aid boxes were handed out, and then the man pointed towards another nearby house. 

    Impromptu aid mission

    Colonel Craig Tucker, whose patrol had stumbled on the first
    family and sent for the Red Crescent to come, paused. This impromptu aid mission was not planned and his marines were strung out along one of Falluja's still dangerous streets. 

    More than 2000 people died in the
    Falluja offensive

    "Okay, okay. We'll go," he said. 

    His marines took the lead, securing the road before the Red Crescent ambulance pulled a little further forward. Down the road, an old man emerged with only a shabby bathrobe to protect him against the biting cold. 

    "I am alone. Please, I have no food, nothing, it's very hard for
    me," he cried as the convoy reached him. 

    Staying home

    Like others before him, the old man knew another house where Iraqis have huddled, waiting out the fighting that engulfed their city. 

    The army and the Red Crescent
    agreed to confer twice a day

    Two young brothers hung a white scrap of cloth from their gate. "When the fighting started in Falluja we knew we had to stay in the house. We could not move. If I died, I died in my house," said one of the young men. 

    "We're so happy to see you because we have only flour to mix with water." 

    The Red Crescent's Falluja coordinator, Jotiar Nafaa, estimates that between 150 and 175 families are left in the city that once had a population of 300,000. 

    Most residents fled to Baghdad or the surrounding countryside as the showdown between armed fighters and US-led forces built towards its inevitable eruption. 

    According to Iraq's interim national security adviser Qasim Dawud, more than 2000 people died in the assault. It is unknown how many were civilians.

    Requesting immediate access

    Nafaa, in his first meeting on Thursday with Colonel Gary
    Montgomery, the officer appointed by the military to help coordinate the Red Crescent's aid efforts, argued that his staffers had to have almost immediate access to the bodies. 

    "When the fighting started in Falluja we knew we had to stay in the house. We could not move. If I died, I died in my house"

    Falluja resident

    "There are a big number of people coming to our offices in Baghdad and asking about their missing people ... Every 10 or 15 minutes there is a phone call from a different place" asking about the situation, he said. 

    Nafaa pushed for a trip into the city on Thursday, saying his staff were frustrated by their inaction. Montgomery did not reject the idea, but it seemed unlikely; the city was still plagued by occasional sniper attacks. 

    Only two days ago, residents trying to make their way to an aid distribution centre in a mosque came under fire, forcing authorities to impose a 24-hour curfew. The source of the fire remained unclear.

    Montgomery assured Nafaa the curfew would be lifted soon. Nafaa tried to negotiate the entry of another aid convoy into the city. 

    The colonel would later acknowledge that the Red Crescent was frustrated with the military, but said steps had been made during the meeting. 

    Establishing contact

    Both sides had agreed to talk at least twice a day, and
    establishing a single point of contact with the military would
    hopefully cut out some of the confusion. 

    Most Falluja structures have been
    destroyed, say residents

    "It should start getting better. We weren't getting the answers we needed from them and they weren't getting what they wanted from us and it was making them frustrated," he said. 

    Out in the street a visibly angered Chibib said the Red Crescent had to try everything possible to see people still hiding in the city, because "no one can go in the street and come to us to ask for help". 

    "We know there are people who have nothing," he said, calling back to one of the families who the Red Crescent did reach. 
    "Don't worry, we're coming back," he said.



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