By Stephen Kalin
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A senior Iraqi official has appealed to the U.S.-led coalition to air-drop food and medicine to tens of thousands of civilians trapped in Falluja, the Islamic State stronghold under siege by security forces.
The city's population is suffering from a shortage of food, medicine and fuel, according to residents reached by phone, and local media said several people had died due to starvation and insufficient medical care. Insecurity and poor communications inside the city make those reports difficult to verify.
Sohaib al-Rawi, the governor of western Anbar province where Falluja is located, said an air-drop was the only way to deliver humanitarian supplies to residents after Islamic State mined the entrances to the city and prevented civilians from leaving.
"No force can enter and secure (the delivery) ... There is no option but for airplanes to transport aid," he said in an interview to al-Hadath TV late on Monday, adding the situation was deteriorating by the day.
Falluja, a long-time bastion of Sunni Muslim jihadists located 50 km (30 miles) west of Baghdad, was the first Iraqi city to fall to Islamic State in January 2014, six months before the group that emerged from al Qaeda swept through large parts of northern and western Iraq and neighboring Syria.
The Iraqi army, police and Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias have together imposed a near total siege on Falluja since late last year.
After recapturing the city of Ramadi - a further 50 km to the west - from Islamic State a month ago, Iraqi authorities have not made clear whether they will attempt to take Falluja next or leave it contained while the bulk of their forces head north towards Mosul, the largest city under the militants' control.
The U.S-led coalition estimates there are around 400 Islamic State fighters in Falluja, though some military analysts put the figure closer to 1,000. The coalition, which includes European and Arab powers, has not previously committed significant resources to humanitarian operations.
Rawi said the militants were using civilians as human shields like they did in Ramadi - a tactic that slowed the advance of Iraqi forces.
He said media reports of up to 10 deaths due to starvation and insufficient medical care were accurate, but Iraqi officials could not provide details.
Lise Grande, U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, described conditions in Falluja as "terrible".
"We're incredibly worried about the unconfirmed reports of people dying because of lack of medicine and widespread hunger," she told Reuters.
The United Nations appealed on Sunday for $861 million to help Iraq meet a big funding gap in its 2016 emergency response to the humanitarian crisis caused by the war against Islamic State which has left 10 million people in need of urgent aid.
(Editing by Pravin Char)