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Iraqis flee Anbar province as fighting with Islamic State rages

More than 90,000 people flee fighting in Iraq's Anbar province as government tries to drive out Islamic State

More than 90,000 people are fleeing fighting in Iraq’s Anbar province, the United Nations said Sunday, as the Iraqi government and aid groups struggled to assist the legions of newly displaced.

“Our top priority is delivering life-saving assistance to people who are fleeing — food, water, and shelter,” Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said in a statement.

Pro-government forces have been engaged in intense clashes with Islamic State militants for control of Ramadi, the Anbar provincial capital, situated 70 miles west of Baghdad.

Iraqi commanders say they are rushing police and military reinforcements to Ramadi to prevent the city from being overrun. Street battles have been raging in the city and in outlying suburbs and towns, authorities say.

The nearby city of Falluja has been under militant control for more than a year. But government forces have managed to maintain their presence in Ramadi.

Footage from Iraq has shown columns of civilians fleeing the Ramadi area, carrying what few possessions they could manage to bring with them. Some lugged suitcases and satchels on their heads as they pushed forward amid other escapees. Quite a few escapees carried young children.

Many fleeing Anbar have been finding shelter in western and southern suburbs of Baghdad, the capital. Because of security concerns, Iraqi authorities are reportedly restricting the numbers entering Baghdad.

Internal conflict in Iraq has led to the displacement of at least 2.7 million Iraqis since 2014, according to the United Nations. The numbers have increased dramatically since Islamic State militants overran a large swath of northern Iraq between June and August of last year.

More than 500,000 people fled last year as the extremists overran the northern city of Mosul and nearby areas. Many of those displaced were Christians, Shiite Muslims and members of the Yazidi sect, all fearing persecution at the hands of Islamic State, an extremist Sunni group.

But the exodus from Anbar, a predominantly Sunni province, shows how the conflict in Iraq has displaced civilians across sectarian lines.

Follow @mdcneville for news from Iraq and Syria

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