Fear for civilians as IS halts Iraqi army at gates of Falluja

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People displaced from fighting in Falluja, Iraq
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Fear for civilians as IS halts Iraqi army at gates of Falluja
An Iraq girl who has fled home due to the clashes on the outskirts of Falluja, gather in the town of Garma, Iraq, May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Civilians who fled their homes due to the clashes on the outskirts of Falluja, gather in the town of Garma, Iraq, May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Civilians who fled their homes due to clashes on the outskirts of Falluja, gather in the town of Garma, Iraq, May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Civilians who fled their homes due to the clashes on the outskirts of Falluja, gather in the town of Garma, Iraq, May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Civilians who fled their homes due to clashes on the outskirts of Falluja, gather in the town of Garma, Iraq, May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Civilians, who fled their homes due to the clashes on the outskirts of Falluja, gather in the town of Garma, Iraq, May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Civilians who fled their homes due to clashes on the outskirts of Falluja, gather in the town of Garma, Iraq, May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
An Iraq girl who fled home due to the clashes on the outskirts of Falluja, gather in the town of Garma, Iraq, May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Civilians who fled their homes due to clashes on the outskirts of Falluja, gather in the town of Garma, Iraq, May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Civilians who fled their homes due to clashes on the outskirts of Falluja, gather in the town of Garma, Iraq, May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Civilians who fled their homes due to the clashes on the outskirts of Falluja, gather in the town of Garma, Iraq, May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A boy plays with a chick after fleeing his home due to the clashes on the outskirts of Falluja, gather in the town of Garma, Iraq, May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Civilians who fled their homes due to clashes on the outskirts of Falluja, gather in the town of Garma, Iraq, May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Civilians who fled their homes due to clashes on the outskirts of Falluja, gather in the town of Garma, Iraq, May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Civilians who fled their homes due to clashes on the outskirts of Falluja, gather in the town of Garma, Iraq, May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Civilians, who fled their homes due to the clashes on the outskirts of Falluja, gather in the town of Garma, Iraq, May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Civilians, who fled their homes due to the clashes on the outskirts of Falluja, gather in the town of Garma, Iraq, May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
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CAMP TARIQ, Iraq, May 31 (Reuters) - Islamic State fighters halted an Iraqi army assault on the city of Falluja with a counter-attack at its southern gates on Tuesday, while the United Nations warned of peril for civilians trapped in the city and used by militants as human shields.

The Iraqi army's assault on Falluja has begun what is expected to be one of the biggest battles ever fought against Islamic State, with the government backed by world powers including the United States and Iran, and determined to win back the first major Iraqi city that fell to the group in 2014.

A week after Baghdad announced the start of the assault, its troops advanced in large numbers into the city limits for the first time on Monday, pouring into rural territory on its southern outskirts but stopping short of the main built-up area.

Baghdad describes the assault to retake the city as a potential turning point in its U.S.-backed campaign to defeat the ultra-hardline Sunni Muslim militants who rule a self-proclaimed caliphate across much of Iraq and Syria.

Falluja, where U.S. troops fought the biggest battles of their own 2003-2011 occupation against Islamic State's precursors, is the militants' closest bastion to Baghdad, believed to be the base from which they have waged a campaign of suicide bombings on the capital less than an hour's drive away.

Retaking it would give the government control of the main population centers in the fertile Euphrates River valley west of the capital for the first time in more than two years.

But the assault is also a test of the army's ability to capture territory while protecting civilians. Although most of Falluja's population is believed to have fled during six months of siege, 50,000 people are still thought to be trapped inside with limited access to food, water or healthcare.

Iraqi army halted by Islamic State outside Falluja

"HUMAN CATASTROPHE UNFOLDING"

"A human catastrophe is unfolding in Falluja. Families are caught in the crossfire with no safe way out," said Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the organizations helping families displaced form the city.

"Warring parties must guarantee civilians safe exit now, before it's too late and more lives are lost," he said.

The United Nations said there were reports that the militants were using several hundred families as human shields in the city center, a tactic they have employed in other locations in Iraq. It said 3,700 people had managed to escape the city in the past week.

"Most people able to get out come from the outskirts of Falluja. For some time militants have been controlling movements, we know civilians have been prevented from fleeing," said Ariane Rummery, spokeswoman for UN refugee agency UNHCR.

"There are also reports from people who left in recent days that they are being required to move with ISIL within Falluja," she said, using an acronym for Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh.

Soldiers from Iraq's elite Rapid Response Team stopped their advance overnight about 500 meters (yards) from the al-Shuhada district, the southeastern part of city's main built-up area, an army commander and a police officer said.

See what life looks like under ISIS rule:

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What life looks like under ISIS rule, Islamic State
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Fear for civilians as IS halts Iraqi army at gates of Falluja
FILE - This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. slamic State militants are barricading down for a possible assault on their de facto capital Raqqa, hiding among civilian homes and preventing anyone from fleeing, as international airstrikes intensify on the Syrian city in the wake of the Paris attacks. For many, the threat of missiles and bombs from the enemies of Islamic State is more of an immediate threat than the vicious oppression of the jihadisâ themselves. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File)
In this photo released on May 4, 2015, by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, Islamic State militants pass by a convoy in Tel Abyad town, northeast Syria. In contrast to the failures of the Iraqi army, in Syria Kurdish fighters are on the march against the Islamic State group, capturing towns and villages in an oil-rich swath of the country's northeast in recent days, under the cover of U.S.-led airstrikes. (Militant website via AP)
This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 4, 2014, which is consistent with other AP reporting, shows Shakir Waheib, a senior member of the al-Qaida breakaway group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), left, next to a burning police vehicle in Iraq's Anbar Province. For the al-Qaida breakaway group that overran parts of Iraq this week, the border between that country and Syria, where it is also fighting, may as well not even be there. The group, wants to establish a Shariah-ruled mini-state bridging both countries, in effect uniting a Sunni heartland across the center of the Mideast.
This file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, which is consistent with AP reporting, shows a convoy of vehicles and fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters in Iraq's Anbar Province. The Islamic State was originally al-Qaida's branch in Iraq, but it used Syria's civil war to vault into something more powerful. It defied orders from al-Qaida's central command and expanded its operations into Syria, ostensibly to fight to topple Assad. But it has turned mainly to conquering territory for itself, often battling other rebels who stand in the way. (AP Photo/militant website, File)
This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. Moderate Syrian rebels are buckling under the onslaught of the radical al-Qaida breakaway group that has swept over large parts of Iraq and Syria. Some rebels are giving up the fight, crippled by lack of weapons and frustrated with the power of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Other, more hard-line Syrian fighters are bending to the winds and joining the radicals. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File)
FILE - This image posted on a militant website on Saturday, June 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, appears to show militants from the Islamic State group with truckloads of captured Iraqi soldiers after taking over a base in Tikrit. Iraq won the battle to retake the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State group, backed by a coalition of the unlikely in Iranian advisers, Shiite militias and U.S.-led airstrikes, but the country now faces what could be its most important battle: Winning the support of the Sunni. (AP Photo via militant website, File)
This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. Once a vibrant, mixed city considered a bastion of support for President Bashar Assad, the eastern city of Raqqa is now a shell of its former life, transformed by al-Qaida militants into the nucleus of the terror group's version of an Islamic caliphate they hope one day to establish in Syria and Iraq. In rare interviews with The Associated Press, residents and activists in Raqqa describe a city where fear prevails, music has been banned, Christians have to pay religious tax in return for protection and face-veiled women and pistol-wielding men in jihadi uniforms patrol the streets. (AP Photo/militant website, File)
In this May 26, 2015 photo, Bilal Abdullah poses for a portrait in the village of Eski Mosul in northern Iraq, nearly a year after Islamic State militants took over the village. In the Islamic State's realm, a document testifying that one has "repented" from a heretical past must be carried at all times and it can mean the difference between life and death. Abdullah learned that not long after the extremists took over his home village. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
In this Wednesday, May 27, 2015 photo, a girl holds a broom in the town of Eski Mosul, Iraq, which had been under the control of the Islamic State group for months. Most residents stayed in the town after it was liberated by Kurdish Peshmerga forces in January 2015. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
In this photo released on March 7, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a member of the Islamic State group holds the IS flag as he dismantles a cross on the top of a church in Mosul, Iraq. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on Feb. 8, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a member of Islamic State group's traffic police, right, writes a ticket to a driver, left, in Raqqa, Syria. Taxi drivers or motorists usually play the IS station on their radios - music, which is forbidden, can get the driver 10 lashes. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on May 4, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, people stand at the window of a media distribution point to receive CDs from Islamic State militants, right, in Mosul, Iraq. (Militant website via AP)
In this Sunday, May 17, 2015 photo, Sheikh Abdullah Ibrahim poses with his son while holding an Islamic State group-issued death certificate - all that he has left of his wife, Buthaina Ibrahim, an outspoken human rights activist and official, in the village of Eski Mosul, northern Iraq. There is no grave, no idea what was done with her body after the extremists took her from their home one night and killed her in a purge after overrunning the village north of Mosul, Iraq in June 2014. Given her government ties, IS fighters quickly demanded she apply for a repentance card. "She said she'd never stoop so low," her husband said. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
In this photo released on April 30, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, new recruits of the Islamic State train in Mosul, northern Iraq. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on Dec. 24, 2014 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a member of the Islamic State group writes in Arabic, "we are a people whom God has honored with Islam," on a newly painted wall in Raqqa, Syria. (Militant website via AP)
In this Wednesday, May 27, 2015 photo, a resident sits on a hill overlooking the town of Eski Mosul, Iraq. The hole next to him is a former grave that was opened up by the Islamic State group militants and used as a sniper hideout. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
In this photo released on July 2, 2014 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, Iraqi men gather around Islamic State group officials to sign cards testifying that they have "repented" from their heretical past, in Mosul, northern Iraq. In a series of interviews by Associated Press journalists, former prisoners and residents who lived under IS rule describe how one of the richest, most sophisticated terrorist organizations in the world accumulates money, terrifies residents, indoctrinates children and buys loyalties. (Militant website via AP)
In this Wednesday, May 27, 2015 photo, Salim Ahmed, a former Iraqi Army member, holds the "repentance card" he received from the Islamic State group in June 2014 shortly after the militants took over his home village of Eski Mosul in northern Iraq. The document is part of the apparatus of control the Islamic State group has constructed across its self-declared "caliphate," the territory it conquered in Syria and Iraq. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
In this photo released on May 14, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a member of the Islamic State group's vice police known as "Hisba," right, reads a verdict handed down by an Islamic court sentencing many they accused of adultery to lashing, in Raqqa City, Syria. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on Jan. 14, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, Islamic State militants kill a man they accused of being a homosexual by throwing him off a building in Syria's northeastern province of Hassakeh. In a series of interviews by Associated Press journalists, former prisoners and residents who lived under IS rule describe how one of the richest, most sophisticated terrorist organizations in the world accumulates money, terrifies residents, indoctrinates children and buys loyalties. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on March 7, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a member of the Islamic State group destroys an icon of the Virgin Mary and Jesus on the wall of a church in Mosul, Iraq. In a series of interviews by Associated Press journalists, former prisoners and residents who lived under IS rule describe how one of the richest, most sophisticated terrorist organizations in the world accumulates money, terrifies residents, indoctrinates children and buys loyalties. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on Jan. 31, 2014 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, women in niqabs - enveloping black robes and veils that leaves only the eyes visible - sew niqabs, which are required for women in Islamic State-held territory, in a factory in Mosul, Iraq. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on Feb. 10, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, two Syrian citizens, right, sit in the office of an inheritance judge of Islamic State group, in the town of al-Tabqa in Raqqa City, Syria. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on April 17, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a member of the Islamic State group's vice police known as "Hisba," patrols a market in Raqqa City, Syria. The Arabic words on the vest read, "The Islamic State - Hisba (vice police)." (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on Feb. 10, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, two women sit in the office of an Islamic State group judge, center, at an Islamic court in al-Tabqa town in Raqqa City, Syria. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on January 31, 2014 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, members of the Islamic State group, left, distribute niqabs, enveloping black robes and veils that leave only the eyes visible, to Iraqi women in Mosul, northern Iraq. In areas controlled by the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, women must not only be covered, but usually are required to wear all black, with flat-soled shoes; for men, Western clothes or hair styles _even hair gel _ can draw suspicion. (Militant website via AP)
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MILITANTS DUG IN

"Our forces came under heavy fire, they are well dug in in trenches and tunnels," said the commander speaking in Camp Tariq, the rear army base south of Falluja, 50 km (30 miles) west of Baghdad.

Reuters journalists in the area could hear explosions from artillery shelling and air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition supporting the Iraqi forces.

A staff member of Falluja's main hospital said it received reports of 32 civilians killed on Monday. Medical sources had reported that the death toll in the city stood at about 50 -- 30 civilians and 20 militants -- during the first week of the offensive which had yet to involve street fighting.

Foreign aid organizations are not present in Falluja but are providing help in camps to those who manage to exit.

Falluja is the second-largest Iraqi city still under control of the militants, after Mosul, their de facto capital in the north that had a pre-war population of about 2 million.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the assault on Falluja on May 22 after a spate of bombings that killed more than 150 people in one week in Baghdad, the worst death toll so far this year. A series of bombings claimed by Islamic State also hit Baghdad on Monday, killing more than 20 people.

POLITICAL PRESSURE ON ABADI

The worsening security situation in the capital has added to political pressure on Abadi, a member of Iraq's Shi'ite majority who is trying to hold a ruling coalition together in the face of public protests against an entrenched political class.

He has called for politicians to set aside their differences and rally behind the army during the Falluja offensive.

Shi'ite militia groups backed by Iran are also taking part in the offensive against Islamic State, but are holding back from participating in the main assault on Falluja to avoid inflaming sectarian tension.

Reuters journalists saw hundreds of Shi'ite militia fighters rallying at one location near Saqlawiya, a village north of Fallluja still under IS control.

The United States is leading a coalition conducting air strikes in support of the Iraqi government offensive, and says it is having success in rolling back Islamic State.

In neighboring Syria, U.S. forces have also aided mainly Kurdish fighters who have seized territory from the militants, as has the Russian-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Falluja has been a bastion of the Sunni insurgency that fought both the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the Shi'ite-led Baghdad government that took over after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, in 2003.

It would be the third major city in Iraq recaptured by the government after Saddam's home town Tikrit and Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's vast western Anbar province, which also includes Falluja.

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