Iraqi push on western Mosul triggers mass exodus
London - Nearly 100,000 Iraqis have fled the battle to retake western Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said.
Iraqi forces launched a major push in February to recapture western Mosul, which is the most populated urban area held by ISIS. There were an estimated 750,000 residents in Mosul when the battle began.
Between February 25th and March 15th, more than 97,000 people were displaced from western Mosul, IOM said on its official Twitter account.
Iraqi forces began the operation to recapture Mosul in October, first retaking the east and then setting their sights on the smaller but more densely populated western area.
More than 238,000 people have been displaced by fighting in the Mosul area, the IOM said, and more have returned to their homes after fleeing.
Many of the residents who streamed out of western neighbourhoods recaptured by the government were desperately hungry and traumatised from having lived under ISIS rule.
Amid the conflict, a steady stream of refugees trudged out of the western districts carrying suitcases, bottles of water and other possessions. Some pushed children and sick, elderly relatives in handcarts and wheelbarrows, witnesses said.
Those who remain trapped in western Mosul are left with dwindling supplies of food and fuel. Prices have skyrocketed: A kilogram of sugar has leaped from $1 to more than $20.
Iraqi Sunni politician Khamis Khanjar warned that the military campaign’s escalation was causing a surge in civilian casualties that could undermine the effort to crush ISIS.
Khanjar said at least 3,500 civilians have been killed since the push into the western side of the city began.
“There were heavy casualties due to speeding up of military operations and we see this as a big mistake and residents who we are in touch with have much more fear than in the past of the ongoing military operations,” Khanjar told Reuters in an interview in Amman.
“We hope the US-led coalition doesn’t hurry up in this way without taking into consideration the human lives,” he added.
Airwars, an independent group that tracks casualties from the campaign, said several hundred civilians had been killed in March. Neither the Iraqi government nor the US-led coalition has announced civilian casualties.
Khanjar said the mounting casualties have mainly come from air strikes and indiscriminate shelling of heavily crowded neighbourhoods.
Mainstream Sunnis say the Shia-led administration has discriminated against them and that Iran is gaining influence within security forces and paramilitary groups.
“The Americans are mistaken if they think that a speedy decisive military solution is the best approach in this battle,” Khanjar said.
“This will have dangerous repercussions on the post-Mosul phase… There will be anger by residents and Daesh will benefit from the large human losses,” he added, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
“Unless there is a political process that restores confidence of Sunnis in the state… in a post-Daesh phase, there may emerge more organisations of terrorists that are even more extreme than Daesh.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi warned ISIS that its fighters must surrender or be killed, although he also pledged to treat the militants’ families fairly.
“Let me be very clear, we will preserve families of Daesh who are civilians but we will punish the terrorists and bring them to justice if they surrender,” he said. “They are cornered and if they will not surrender, they will definitely get killed.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a new report, said Iraq’s Interior Ministry “is holding at least 1,269 detainees, including boys as young as 13, without charge in horrendous conditions and with limited access to medical care at three makeshift prisons” south of Mosul.
“At least four prisoners have died, in cases that appear to be linked to lack of proper medical care and poor conditions and two prisoners’ legs have been amputated, apparently because of lack of treatment for treatable wounds,” HRW said.
The Interior Ministry’s spokesman said he could not comment on the report until it had been reviewed by the minister.
While changes do seem to have been made, HRW’s allegations indicate that significant problems remain with screening procedures — problems likely to breed anger and resentment and drive more people into the arms of militants.
On the battlefield, Iraqi forces moved towards Mosul’s Grand Mosque after taking control of the bridge leading to the ISIS-held Old City.
Staff Brigadier Falah al-Obeidi of the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) told Reuters his troops had taken control of the Dor al-Sikak and al- Nafut areas, site of the militants’ main weapons stores in Mosul just west of the Old City.
“Resistance was very strong in that area. It’s where their stores are and the people living there, both men and women, are with them (supporters or members),” he said.