Anbar, Iraq – A 10-month siege of Anbar province has sparked one of the worst humanitarian crises to hit Iraq. The province, which borders Syria, has seen fierce fighting between Iraqi forces and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has controlled most of Iraq’s western province for the past two months.
“The siege has also seen a blockade of food, medical supplies and other goods,” 26-year-old Hadi Othman, a resident of Amiriyat al-Fallujah in Anbar, told Al Jazeera. Othman said the lack of petroleum byproducts has driven Anbar back into the “stone age”.
“We’ve had to start gathering wood and shrubs to use as firewood for cooking because when gasoline or other products are available, we simply cannot afford it because they are overpriced,” he said.
Another tribal fighter told Reuters on October 24, that families, trapped in their villages, had resorted to firewood for cooking. Unable to reach their farms, many were trying to grow vegetables in their back yards, he said. Women have had to deliver babies in their homes.
“We have almost completely run out of supplies and are living on dates and water,” the fighter said.
Long neglected by former Iraqi governments, Anbar was a flashpoint in Iraq’s conflict with ISIL. Several residents told Al Jazeera that the ISIL siege was motivated by vengeance as the province “stood by the Iraqi military and police forces and resisted ISIL domination”.
The humanitarian crisis can be illustrated by the price of a bag of flour which, if it can be found at all, costs $100 compared to $20 prior to the siege. “Prices for food have skyrocketed five-fold following a two-month siege by ISIL,” said resident Yaqoub Abbasi, noting many in his town now live on a gruel made from spelt.
Amiriyat al-Fallujah faces a worse crisis because it is under ISIL siege from all four corners.
Pointing to his town’s air field, Abbasi urged the world community to work with the government in Baghdad to deliver aid to the town’s inhabitants.
Last month, ISIL announced it had taken more territory in Anbar province, even as Iraq’s army and pro-government Sunni fighters continued to pursue the armed group.
Iraqi government forces succeeded in recapturing the town of Ameriyah in Fallujah, a strategic town that links Anbar to Baghdad and the south of the country. By holding Ameriyah against ISIL fighters, the army may be able to ensure that supplies from the capital reach Anbar.
But only a few kilometres currently separate ISIL fighters and Iraqi troops as ISIL keeps up its push towards the city, despite an expanding US-led campaign of air strikes.
The United Nations said last month that the number of people displaced by the fighting in Anbar was the highest since the brutal sectarian violence of 2006-2008. Last February, the UN warned that violence in the Sunni-dominated province has displaced up to 300,000 people.
There are also growing fears amid signs of famine in some parts of the province. Sabah Karhout, the governor of Anbar province, told Al Jazeera that some areas have indeed been suffering from famine, including the villages locked between Heet (70km west of Anbar’s provincial capital Ramadi) and Haditha and in Amiriyat al-Fallujah.
The daily provision of water by tankers to the Heet district has been suspended since October 2 because of security concerns.
“When Heet was captured by ISIL, all of the connecting towns and cities dotted across the province were now shut down, which resulted in the scarce food supplies,” Karhout said. “Amiriyat al-Fallujah faces a worse crisis because it is under ISIL siege from all four corners.”
Up to 180,000 people have been displaced by fighting in and around Heet, the UN said last month. A walled market town 30km from Ramadi, Heet had been home to 100,000 people who had fled other areas of Iraq that fell to ISIL. The town lies close to the Ain al-Asad military base, one of Iraq’s largest defence facilities.
The people who have it worst, Othman said, are the hospital patients stuck in limbo: Even as the hospitals in Amiriyat al-Fallujah are running low on all medical supplies, these patients are unable to make it to the nearest hospital in Ramadi.
And while central government forces remain in command of the capital, they have not allowed much-needed trucks of food to cross the Bazeebez Bridge linking Anbar with Baghdad, Karhout noted. ISIL’s siege has impeded international aid organisations from helping displaced families in the region. The governor stressed that aid must be delivered by air, with the cooperation of Iraqi forces.
“Anbar province is in dire need of thousands of tonnes of food aid and humanitarian assistance,” he said, “and addressing such a need requires the cooperation of the government in Baghdad, the United Nations, the European Union and the Arab League.”