Iraqi forced backed by coalition air strikes began an offensive on Thursday to take Hawija, one of Islamic State group's last enclaves
As Iraqi and US-led coalition forces mount an operation to retake the northern town of Hawija from the Islamic State group (IS), concerns are growing that tens of thousands of children will suffer amid the intense fighting and bombing.
Early on Thursday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the first phase of the liberation of Hawija, which is one of the last enclaves still held by IS in Iraq.
The town which has been a bastion of insurgency ever since the first year of the US-led occupation in 2003 was bypassed by government forces in their advance north to Mosul last year.
But Save the Children said that the offensive may put 30,000 children in “extreme danger”.
“They have already suffered horribly under ISIS rule in the city. Food, water and medicine are running out, with many children reportedly weak and malnourished. Schools and hospitals have shut down,” said Aram Shakaram, Save the Children’s deputy country director in Iraq.
“Now families face a terrible choice of staying put as fighting intensifies, or risking their lives to flee on foot for up to 12 hours through minefields and snipers, then wade across a river to reach safety.
"With other routes cut off, it is imperative that all Iraqi and coalition forces open up safe escape routes for people and allow civilians to flee to wherever is safest. We also call on forces to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and do everything they can to protect innocent lives. Without this, far too many children will be caught in the crossfire."
The charity has already supported children who have fled the IS-held city over the past year by providing emergency blankets, psychological support, and basic education.
Last year, a video released by Save the Children revealed the trauma felt by children living under IS with one 17-year old boy speaking of his torture by IS years before.
'They put a bag on my head, they tortured me, made me wish I could die,’ said Adel.
'They used different torture methods. Those who smoked, they cut their fingers."
Kandahar in Iraq
Abadi praised his forces on Thursday who he said were "fighting more than one liberation battle at the same time and winning victory after victory," adding that "a new victory" was looming.
"At the dawn of a new day, we announce the launch of the first stage of the liberation of Hawija, in accordance with our commitment to our people to liberate all Iraqi territory and eradicate Daesh's terrorist groups," Abadi said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
The US-led coalition fighting IS hailed the new offensive by the Iraqi security forces (ISF) against IS.
— OIR Spokesman (@OIRSpox) September 21, 2017
"ISF launch Hawija operations to defeat Daesh. ISIS now faces the mighty ISF the last two areas where they hold any territory in Iraq," a spokesman tweeted.
An AFP correspondent heard heavy shelling around the IS-held town of Sharqat where Iraqi forces have been massing in recent days.
Hawija earned the nickname of "Kandahar in Iraq" from coalition troops from the early months after the invasion of 2003 for the ferocious resistance it put up similar to that in the Taliban militia's bastion in Afghanistan.
Located west of the ethnically divided Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk, Hawija also lies on a faultline of Arab-Kurdish tensions.
Despite forming part of the oil-rich Kirkuk province, the area is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab and bitterly opposed to Kurdish ambitions to incorporate Kirkuk into their autonomous region in the north.
Preparations for the offensive in Hawija have been overshadowed by an independence referendum that Kurdish leaders plan to hold on Monday in areas including Kirkuk against the wishes of the federal government in Baghdad.