While United States forces mount the final military operations to pacify Fallujah, the people of the devastated city have taken refuge in outlying towns, many of them huddled in misery, without adequate food, water, medicine and shelter.
More than 80 per cent of the population of 300,000 are living in nearby towns or in Baghdad. The US military has barred aid convoys from Fallujah, insisting they have enough resources to look after the remaining civilians. But the few who have ventured to the distribution centres risk getting caught in crossfire.
Aid organisations say 102,000 Fallujah refugees are in Amiriyah, 50,000 are in Baghdad; about 21,600 are in Karma, 18,000 are in Nieamiyah and 12,000 are in Habbaniyah. Unicef and the aid groups say Amiriyah, an industrial centre, suffers from a serious lack of shelter, and Habbaniyah, formerly a tourist resort, has a severe shortage of clean water. It is also the place most difficult to get to because of the threat from insurgents.
Iyad Allawi, Iraq's interim Prime Minister, has accused the Iraqi Red Crescent of deliberately painting a bleak picture and claimed that several of its senior officials had held posts under Saddam. The organisation, as well as other agencies, is deeply apprehensive of making statements lest it provokes the government into further curtailing agencies' activities.
General Abdul Qadir Mohan, the commander of the Iraqi government forces for the Fallujah assault, said refugee conditions are worsening, particularly in Habbaniyah. "In some cases, there are seven families living in one room and sometimes 300 people have to wait in line to use the toilet. Many are already suffering from diseases. It is a holy duty to return these people home."
Bilal Hussein, a 33-year-old photographer for Associated Press, who escaped the city during the fighting, said: "I decided to swim the river. But I changed my mind after seeing US helicopters firing and killing people who tried to cross. I saw a family of five shot dead. I helped bury a man by the river bank with my own hands."
Mr Hussein had planned to stay in Fallujah to cover the fighting. But he said he fled after feeling he was in grave danger. "US soldiers began to open fire on the houses, so I decided it was very dangerous to stay," he said. "Destruction was everywhere. I saw people dead in the streets, the wounded were bleeding and there was no one to help them."
Fayouz Mohammed Abdullah, a 42-year-old trader, had sent his wife and four children out of Fallujah just before the attack. He had stayed to protect his home, not just from the fighting, but the looting he thought would inevitably follow. He managed to get away just as US troops overran his neighbourhood in the north of the city, and is now with his family in Habbaniyah.
Mr Abdullah said by telephone: "I came out with my hands up and holding a white pillow case. The main danger came from Iraqi [government] soldiers. Two of them wanted to shoot me, and I must say it was an American who stopped them. They talked about arresting me, and I was made to sit against a wall with my head between my knees. But then there was more firing and they went away somewhere.
"I walked out of Fallujah. There was firing everywhere, but by Allah's will I was not hit. Outside the city there was a bus with women and I got on that. The Americans did not stop us and we got to Habbaniyah. We have relations here and we have somewhere to stay. But everything is in bad supply. There is not enough food. What little food we have, we give to our children. I am also worried that when we go back to Fallujah there will be nothing left of our home."
Ahmed Ali Safah, a teacher, arrived at Habbaniyah with his family before the assault. "We heard the Americans were saying it was the last chance we had to leave. So we came with just a few suitcases; we left everything behind. We are staying in a house with three other families and there must be 30 people here. The children are being sick but there is no medicine. Trucks [from the Red Crescent] came here with blankets and food. They also had tablets for bad water, but they had all finished by the time we got to the trucks."
Umm Haider lost her husband in the Iraq-Iran war. She said: "I left four of my sons behind. They had said they would join me here if the situation became worse. I do not know how much worse it can get."