BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Hundreds of Iraqis displaced by fierce battles between al Qaeda militants and U.S. and Iraqi security forces began receiving humanitarian aid on Monday at a camp set up on Baghdad’s southern outskirts.
The Iraqi Red Crescent aid programme began on the same day the humanitarian group announced falling violence had allowed between 25,000 and 28,000 Iraqis to return from Syria in September and October.
More than 100 Sunni Arab families had been seeking help since Sunni Islamist al Qaeda launched a major attack on the town of Adwaniya, 20 km (12 miles) southeast of Baghdad on November 13.
Their plight is a reminder that while attacks have dropped sharply in recent months, Iraq remains dangerous. U.S. and Iraqi forces are still fighting to remove al Qaeda from the area.
“We did not commit any crime, we did not do anything,” Lamia Mahmoud told Reuters as she sat on the floor of a new, white canvas IRC tent. Her three young children did not flinch when U.S. artillery, aimed at al Qaeda in Adwaniya, opened up nearby.
The IRC has set up 101 tents for displaced families on a barren plot of ground owned by local tribal sheikh Hussein Khudeir in the Rasheed district on Baghdad’s southern outskirts.
IRC workers busily handed out food, blankets, mattresses and pillows, lanterns, heaters and oil to the waiting families.
“It’s winter now and they will need it,” said Waleed Wasif, the IRC director for Rasheed.
Children lined up for check-ups and medicine at another tent, with tanks of potable water set up behind the rows of tents. “I’m sick, all my children are sick,” Mahmoud said as she brushed flies from the eyes of her youngest child.
Mahmoud, who said her husband was killed by the feared Mehdi Army Shi’ite militia in 2006, had been staying with family since the Adwaniya battle but had received little other help.
“They are poor people, so we left them,” she said.
“There is no work, not enough food. We left everything behind, we left our furniture, we left our house.”
Last month, about 45 al Qaeda gunmen using small arms and heavy-calibre machineguns attacked two checkpoints in Adwaniya manned by local police units set up by tribal sheikhs.
U.S. F-16 warplanes dropped two 500 lb bombs during the day-long battle in Adwaniya, long an al Qaeda stronghold. The U.S. military estimated 15 al Qaeda fighters were killed in the battle, along with two members of the “concerned citizens” unit.
The local citizens units, which first emerged in western Anbar province last year, have been credited with helping bring down violence along with a “surge” of 30,000 extra U.S. troops.
Monthly death tolls for Iraqi civilians are at their lowest since the bombing of a Shi’ite shrine in Samarra in February 2006 sparked a wave of sectarian bloodshed.
As many as 2 million Iraqis fled the violence to other countries, mainly Syria and Jordan. With violence down, the government has said 1,600 people are returning each day.
Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia