The full cost of the battle of Falluja emerged last night as large numbers of wounded civilians were evacuated to hospitals in Baghdad, as insurgents stepped up retaliatory attacks in other cities.
As the first Red Crescent aid convoy was allowed into Falluja, Iraq's Health Minister, Alaa Alwan, said ambulances had begun transferring a 'significant number' of injured civilians out of the battle zone, although he did not specify how many.
The evacuation of the wounded from Falluja came as insurgents consolidated their grip on large areas of Iraq's third largest city, Mosul, setting up checkpoints and conducting their own patrols, and as fresh Iraqi and US troops were rushed north to counter the new threat.
The moves came amid renewed warnings from aid groups that Iraq's civilian population was facing a 'humanitarian catastrophe'.
Although many of Falluja's 200,000 to 300,000 residents fled the city before the assault, between 30,000 and 50,000 are believed to have remained during the fighting.
The horrific conditions for those who remained in the city have begun to emerge in the last 24 hours as it became clear that US military claims of 'precision' targeting of insurgent positions were false.
According to one Iraqi journalist who left Falluja on Friday, some of the civilian injuries were caused by the massive firepower directed on to city neighbourhoods during the battle.
'If the fighters fire a mortar, US forces respond with huge force,' said the journalist, who asked not to be named.
At the main hospital, cut off from the rest of the city, doctors have reportedly been treating the injured with nothing but bandages, while the Red Crescent says people have been bleeding to death for lack of medical attention.
The claims came as an Iraqi Red Crescent convoy entered Falluja yesterday with the first aid supplies to reach the city since US-led forces began to blast their way in five days ago.
Prior to that the city had been surrounded by a US military cordon and subjected to heavy daily bombardment.
Red Crescent spokeswoman Firdoos al-Abadi - who had described the situation inside the city as 'catastrophic' - said 30 volunteers with five trucks and three ambulances had driven into the city west of Baghdad.
The aid convoy reached Falluja's main hospital, on the west bank of the Euphrates, but US forces stopped it crossing the river into the city centre, saying bridges were insecure.
The fears of large numbers of civilian injured have raised fresh warnings that the suffering in Falluja will be used to rally insurgents across northern Iraq.