Baghdad: Iraq's top cleric urged government forces battling to retake Falluja from IS militants to spare civilians trapped in the city on Baghdad's western approaches.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani's appeal reflected concerns that a large civilian death toll in the battle for the city could aggravate sectarian tensions in Iraq.
Sistani added his voice to many calls for restraint in the battle launched on Monday to retake Falluja, the first Iraqi city to fall under the control of the ultra-hardline IS, in January 2014.
"Sayyid Sistani reaffirms his recommendations that the ethics of war be respected," his representative, Sheikh Abdul Mahdi Al Karbalai, said in a statement.
"Don't be extreme ... don't be treacherous. Don't kill an old man, nor a boy, nor a woman. Don't cut a tree unless you have to," he said.
Aid agencies have become alarmed about civilian suffering in a city that has been under siege for six months, and the United Nations has urged combatants to protect inhabitants trying to escape the fighting.
On Wednesday morning Iraqi troops concentrated artillery fire on Falluja's northern and northeastern neighbourhoods, according to a resident contacted via the Internet.
A Falluja hospital source said that six civilians were killed and 11 wounded on Wednesday morning, raising the overall death toll since Monday's launch of the government offensive to 35 - 21 civilians and 14 militants.
"Fierce fighting is now raging around the city," Save the Children said in a statement on Wednesday, calling for safe civilian exit routes to be established as quickly as possible.
Falluja's population is around 100,000, according to US and Iraqi government estimates.
The offensive is part of a government campaign to roll back IS's seizure of wide tracts of northern and western Iraq. Baghdad's forces retook Ramadi, the Anbar provincial capital near Falluja, in December but have not yet tackled a bigger challenge - IS-held Mosul, Iraq's largest northern city.
An Iraqi military spokesman said troops were trying to tighten the encirclement of Falluja by advancing on the western front, near the village of Khalidiya.
The Association of Muslim Scholars of Iraq, a hardline political organisation formed after Saddam's ouster to represent minority community, has condemned the assault on Falluja as "an unjust aggression, a reflection of the vengeful spirit that the forces of evil harbour against this city".
Sistani wields enormous influence over Iraq's majority community. It was at his call that militias regrouped in 2014 in a coalition known as Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation), to stem IS's stunning advance through the north and west.
Hashid Shaabi will take part in encircling Falluja but will not enter the city unless the Iraqi army fails in doing so, said Hadi Al Amiri, the leader of the Badr Organisation, the largest component of the coalition.
"Our decision is to encircle the city from the outside and let the security forces operate; if the security forces are unable to cleanse the city, we will then go in,'' he said, according to video recording on the state-run TV channel.