At least 20,000 children are currently trapped in the western Iraqi city of Fallujah, where food and medicine are running out and clean water is in short supply, Peter Hawkins, the country's UNICEF representative, said Wednesday.
Since the military operation in Fallujah against Islamic State began on May 21, very few families have been able to leave, according to UNICEF. Most of these families moved to two camps, while others sought refuge with relatives and extended families.
Hawkins warned that, as the violence continues to escalate in Fallujah and across Iraq, children may face the risk of forced recruitment into the fighting.
“Children who are forcibly recruited into the fighting see their lives and futures jeopardized as they are forced to carry and use arms, fighting an adults' war,” he said.
Fallujah was one of the first major cities in Iraq to fall to Islamic State, in early 2014, when the jihadist group took advantage of local fury at a deadly crackdown on Sunni protests ordered by then Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
It is one of the major cities in the mainly Sunni al-Anbar province, which stretches west from Baghdad to the Syrian and Jordanian borders.
The province has been a key stronghold for the Sunni extremist group. But security forces, backed by airstrikes by a US-led coalition, have made a series of major gains there in recent months.