Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the besieged Iraqi city of Ramadi in recent days, as ISIL fighters consolidate their grip ahead of an expected counteroffensive from Shia militias.
Residents continue to leave in large numbers — the U.N. estimates 25,000 people in all, many heading toward the capital, Baghdad — prompting aid agencies to warn of a humanitarian crisis. “Nothing is more important right now than helping the people fleeing Ramadi. They are in trouble, and we need to do everything possible to help them,” said Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in the country.
ISIL fighters are believed to have killed as many as 500 Iraqi civilians and soldiers in the city. On Monday, members of the group went door to door searching for pro-government sympathizers, reportedly throwing bodies in the nearby Euphrates River.
Meanwhile, residents who have remained are brace for a likely attempt to retake the city.
At least 3,000 Shia-led militia members were amassing around Ramadi after being deployed by the government in Baghdad.
The moves and countermoves come after ISIL overran Ramadi on Sunday, forcing government troops out from one of the few towns and cities that it controlled in the mainly Sunni Anbar province in the country’s west.
The decision to include the Shia militias in the fight to retake the key city has upset many in Anbar, including tribal elders, who believe that the government should be arming volunteer fighters there, not deploying militias.
Tarik al-Abdullah, the secretary-general of the Anbar council, told Al Jazeera on Monday that the Shia fighters are “not very welcome.”
“We need the support of the government. We have a big number of volunteers waiting to participate to liberate our province from [ISIL],” he said.
U.S. officials said Washington was deeply divided about the involvement of Shia militias with links to Iran, a U.S. rival that has been expanding its influence throughout the Middle East. After spearheading the recapture of Tikrit in Iraq, some Shia fighters last month went on a spree of burning, looting and violence in the majority Sunni city, according to local residents.
“There are people in our government who see any involvement of Iran as anathema. There are others who say the Shi’ite involvement will promote sectarian violence. There are others who say that’s not true,” a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.
One U.S. intelligence official said one concern was that ISIL could use the involvement of Shia militias to itself stir up sectarian hatred.
A senior Iranian official said on Monday that his country was ready to help confront ISIL and that he was certain Ramadi would be “liberated” from their grip.
“If the Iraqi government made an official request to the Iranian government in its capacity as a friendly and brotherly country to Iraq, which can take on a role to help Iraq to confront these extremist phenomena, then the Islamic Republic will respond to this request,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Meanwhile, the U.N.’s concerns are with the civilians caught up in the fighting. The World Food Program has distributed thousands of emergency response rations to internally displaced people fleeing Ramadi — enough to last three days.
Other U.N. agencies, in tandem with international NGOs, are also distributing water and health kits to those displaced by the fighting.
“Within the past month, U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations have provided life assistance to more than 130,000 people who fled Ramadi following ISIL attacks in April,” the U.N. said in a statement.
Al Jazeera and wire services