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Dire circumstances for Iraqis fleeing Fallujah fighting

The campaign to drive the Islamic State from Fallujah is advancing much more swiftly than anticipated, with much of the city already retaken. But this success offers little comfort to the tens of thousands of residents who have been forced into the desert by the fighting and live without basic amenities. Special correspondent Jane Arraf joins Judy Woodruff to describe their situation.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now we turn to Iraq.

    The offensive to retake the city of Fallujah, held by ISIS for more than two years, is proceeding much more quickly than anticipated. But tens of thousands of its residents have been forced by the fighting into the desert, as temperatures soar, without services, or even water in many cases.

    We turn to special correspondent Jane Arraf. She's in Baghdad now, where she is on assignment for The Christian Science Monitor.

    Jane, you were just in Fallujah yesterday. And is it the case this operation has been going much faster than expected?

  • JANE ARRAF:

    Well, Judy, it has been going faster certainly than some of the previous operations, including the battle for the provincial capital Anbar.

    But I think we have to remember that Fallujah is a different case. Fallujah had up to 100,000 people in it. And it was where ISIS first came into, where they tried to persuade Iraqis that they were a better alternative than the Iraqi government.

    They didn't lay the land mines, they didn't lay the improvised explosives the same way that they riddled other cities with. It was actually faster for the special forces that we were with to actually go through there and fight.

    Having said that, they have not in fact liberated Fallujah, in the sense that the Iraqi government likes to say that they have. Now, Iraqi special forces, including the commander, who we spoke with, says that they have now cleared 75 percent of the city.

    American military sources say they think that's closer to 25 percent. And they say that the effort is continuing. But as it's continuing, as you pointed out, there is absolute tragedy on the outskirts of Fallujah with all these civilians trying to flee.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, tell us about that. Who stayed in Fallujah when ISIS had control, and what's happening to those people?

  • JANE ARRAF:

    A lot of people did leave at the beginning, but then a lot of people stayed for a variety of reasons.

    And when it got to two years in, essentially, they weren't allowed to leave. So, the people that I was speaking with, mostly women and children, because they were separated from their husbands and their brothers as the Iraqi security forces tried to weed out suspected ISIS fighters from civilians fleeing, were telling us, were telling me that they had been without real food for weeks on end.

    Now, as the siege of Fallujah intensified, ISIS itself started running out of food, and it started giving food only to those tribes, those families that were loyal to it. So, groups of women who I spoke with said that they had been living on the only thing they could afford, which was basically dried dates that were meant for animal feed.

    They weren't allowed to leave the city. If they could leave the city, it was through bribery. And at this point, people just don't have the money. So, they basically stayed, Judy, because they had to stay. It is when ISIS was driven back and the floodgates opened and up to 80,000 people fled over the past three days, just last week, that things got really dire.

    Some people were actually killed trying to leave. I met a man with the remainder of his family in an ambulance in Fallujah being evacuated by Iraqi security forces who has lost three of his daughters and his wife. As they were leaving, they were hit by either a mortar or a rocket.

    He ended up burying two of his daughters in the grounds in the hospital. And then he couldn't leave until Iraqi security forces rescued him. There are other people who drowned trying to leave.

    But even those who survive, Judy, are living in dire circumstances. There is no water. There is no consistent water supply. There is not even shelter. I have met pregnant women who are lying on the ground without even a piece of shade.

    And it's doubly puzzling, because this was expected, this exodus of civilians from Fallujah.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You're saying a lot of people are still there, but there's just been little or no provisions made for those who have been able to get out?

  • JANE ARRAF:

    There are very people believed left in the city.

    Now, if you talk to aid organizations, and there are very few of them on ground, that is the other problem, they will tell you that up to 80,000 people actually fled over three days.

    So, all of those people are in areas surrounding Fallujah. And it in places that aren't really equipped to hold large numbers of people. The other problem is that they are essentially trapped between Fallujah and the fighting that is still going on there.

    And on this side, Baghdad. Baghdad will not let them in, because it believes that many of them are ISIS supporters and it isn't able to screen them.

    So, the most poignant scenes are just across a bridge that leads from the outskirts of Baghdad to Anbar province. There are thousands of people, most of them women and children, massed up against that bridge waiting for approval to cross. They're out there in temperatures that are more than 100 degrees in the shade.

    They're scrambling for even a little bit of water. There are no toilets. There are no tents. And it is a sign really that the international community as well as the Iraqi government has failed them. Everyone is scrambling to get aid in there, but at this point there are people suffering, and reports coming out that some people may actually be dying.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It sounds just horrible.

    Jane Arraf reporting for us right now in Baghdad — yesterday, you were in Fallujah — thank you.

  • JANE ARRAF:

    Thank you, Judy.

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