Entire sections of Baghdad's embattled Sadr City district have been left nearly abandoned by civilians fleeing a U.S.-led showdown with Shiite militias and seeking aid after facing shortages of food and medicine, humanitarian groups said Wednesday.
The reports by the agencies, including the U.N. children's fund, add to the individual accounts by civilians pouring out of the Sadr City area as clashes intensify.
U.S. forces have increased air power and armored patrols in the attempt to cripple Shiite militia influence in Sadr City, a slum of 2.5 million people that serves as the Baghdad base for the Mahdi Army led by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The battles started in late March after the Iraqi government opened a crackdown on militias and armed gangs in the southern city of Basra, including some groups Washington says have links to Iran.
Claire Hajaj, a UNICEF spokeswoman based in Jordan, said up to 150,000 people — including 75,000 children — were isolated in sections of Sadr City "cordoned off by military forces."
She said about 6,000 people have been forced to flee their homes and that some areas of southeastern Sadr City were virtually abandoned.
The U.S. military is trying to weaken the militia grip in the slum and disrupt rocket and mortar strikes from Sadr City on the U.S.-protected Green Zone, which includes the U.S. Embassy and key Iraqi government offices.
The fighting has prevented aid workers from reaching residents of the neighborhood, and in past weeks has led to shortages of water, food and medicine, Hajaj said.
She noted, however, that the water shortage seems to have abated in recent days, and the Iraqi government and U.S. forces have been able to restore some basic services to certain areas.
Tahseen al-Sheikhly, the spokesman for the civilian side of the Baghdad security operations, told reporters that some groups have exaggerated the number of civilians fleeing Sadr City and that "our figures are far less than these figures." But he did not provide specific numbers.
An official with the Iraqi Red Crescent said about 1,200 people who fled Sadr City were fed by the organization on Tuesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Medical care also has been limited by the fighting, Hajaj said.
She said the Habibiya Maternity Hospital — the one maternity medical facility in the neighborhood — has essentially shut down, with "access extremely limited because it is in one of the most dangerous, militia-dominated parts" of Sadr City.
"Emergency assistance can not cover all the needs in Sadr City," said Siri Elverland, a spokeswoman in Jordan for the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs.
She said the "resumption of commercial activity ... and public service delivery" is essential and can only happen "when there is a cessation or pause in fighting."
U.S. commanders have stressed that they are pushing to restore services — water, electricity, garbage collection — to areas once the security situation permits.
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, speaking at the same news conference as al-Sheikhly, said the military is "responding appropriately" to militants firing rockets into the Green Zone while also "taking precautions to limit the impact on innocent civilians."
Meanwhile, al-Arabiya television identified the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq as Hamid Dawoud al-Zawi, a former member of Saddam Hussein's army who joined the Sunni-led insurgency after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Previously, al-Qaida leader identified the leader as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.
The Al-Arabiya report cited the source as an Iraqi police official, but gave no further details. The U.S. military would not comment on the authenticity of the report, citing security reasons.
"Regardless of his 'real' identity, however, al-Baghdadi is a 'figurehead' to give the public appearance of Iraqi leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq," said U.S. military spokesman Maj. Winfield S. Danielson. "The real leader of al-Qaida in Iraq is the Egyptian Abu Ayyub al-Masri."