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U.S. Official: Iraqis Telling Fallujah Civilians to Mark Roofs with White Sheets

An Iraqi boy sleeps in his mother's arms in a minibus after fleeing Fallujah on June 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

ARLINGTON, Va. — A spokesman for U.S. operations against ISIS said it’s the Iraqi military airdropping leaflets in Fallujah telling civilians to mark their rooftops with a white sheet to avoid strikes.

Col. Chris Garver, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters at the Pentagon via video feed from Baghdad today that fighting around Fallujah has been “significant” as ISIS “has been offering stiff resistance, fighting with heavy machine guns and indirect fire from mortars and artillery” in an attempt to beat back coalition efforts to retake the city.

“We are still trying to asses the overall intent of Daesh in the city, whether they intend to try to hold to the last man or if they will abandon their defenses as the [Iraqi Security Forces] fighters — as the ISF fights deeper into the city. As you know, we’ve seen both of these in the past,” he noted.

The U.S. coalition has contributed 31 airstrikes around Fallujah over the past week.

“We have conducted hundreds of hours of surveillance over Fallujah and continue to help the Iraqis develop the intelligence picture inside the city,” Garver said. “Now there is great concern about the state of the civilians inside Fallujah. The Iraqi government has the lead for its citizens as they flee from the fighting throughout the area and they are being supported by international humanitarian organizations of which the U.S. is a significant contributor.”

“…As Iraq enters the holy month of Ramadan, we expect Daesh to attempt more high-profile, headline-grabbing attacks to sow terror and to distract from the fact that they keep losing militarily on the battlefield.”

The colonel said estimates range from 20,000 to 100,000 civilians still stuck in Fallujah under ISIS rule.

“But the fight around the civilians is being conducted very carefully. Our strikes, as you know, go through a complex process to clear those strikes and make sure that what we shoot at is what we want to hit and what the Iraqis want us to hit and what they approve us to hit. The prime minister has also issued a directive to the Iraqi forces involved in the fight, saying be cautious around the civilians, be careful about fighting around them,” Garver said.

A “couple thousand” civilians have been able to get out of the city so far — ISIS traditionally tries to stop civilians from fleeing by violent means — and moved into camps for displaced Iraqis.

Garver said “there’s no difference of opinion” between the Americans and the Iraqis “about protecting the civilians.”

“We’re trying to protect civilians with every strike, and of course, we want the — the Iraqi government to protect civilians with its ground movements as well. So we are, you know, right aligned with that concern,” he said. “…As the civilians have come out of Fallujah, they have been screened for security purposes off of information that the Iraqi government keeps — intelligence that the Iraqi government keeps.”

The spokesman said the Iraqis are responsible for airdrops telling civilians to “put white sheets on the roofs.”

“That was not a coalition operation. That was an Iraqi operation to do that. And the Iraqis do their own leaflet drops repeatedly and regularly across the countryside,” Garver said.

“…So we get a call from the Iraqis saying ‘we want fire in this location.’ The targeteers will figure out what is the right target to attack; what is — you know, what is the right target to attack, what is the description of the target, what is the weapons system that we choose, and what is the delivery platform. It could be anything from an AC-130 to an F-22 to an MQ1, you know, surveillance plane, remotely piloted vehicle. Then that has to be cleared through the Iraqis to say, ‘this is where we think the target it; do you have friendly forces in the area?’ And the Iraqis have to tell us, ‘We don’t have any friendly forces in the area’ and ‘we don’t see any civilians in the area.’ At the same time, we’re looking with our own ISR to make sure we don’t see civilians in the area.”