Refugee exodus feared as Mosul offensive looms
BAGHDAD - As the Iraqi Army, backed by Shia militias, prepared to retake the northern city of Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS), UN officials braced for an exodus of hundreds of thousands of civilians from the city.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) warned that more than 1 million Iraqis in and around Mosul could be affected by the military action.
“In Mosul we believe the displacement situation may be about to dramatically worsen,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told a news briefing in Geneva. “The humanitarian impact of the military offensive is expected to be enormous. Up to 1.2 million people could be affected.”
The UNHCR said it planned to create camps in six locations across northern Iraq but was struggling to find land to house the refugees. Carolina Gluck, UNHCR spokeswoman in Baghdad, told Reuters there was the potential for a “full-blown catastrophe”.
In June, civilians fleeing Falluja were shot at by ISIS fighters as Iraqi forces began liberating the city. A similar fate could await civilians attempting to leave Mosul.
Shia militias killed at least 66 Sunni males from the Falluja area and many more suffered abuse. More than 700 men and boys are missing. Homes were burned and looted in the city.
The Iraqi government blamed ISIS but some provincial police officials said Shia militias set the fires.
Central government forces and Shia militias are not alone in facing allegations of such attacks on civilian property.
Amnesty International in January accused Kurdish forces of bulldozing, exploding and burning thousands of homes in Arab villages in northern Iraq.
“Though KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] officials have tended to justify the displacement of Arab communities on grounds of security, it appears to be used to punish them for their perceived sympathies with so-called Islamic State, and to consolidate territorial gains and establish control over ‘disputed areas’ of the country,” the Amnesty International report noted.
The KRG strongly denied the Amnesty International accusation.
Such incidents have led many Arab Sunnis in Mosul who oppose ISIS to fear the city’s liberation at the hands of Shia or Kurdish militias.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi said his government aims to liberate the entire province of Nineveh, where Mosul is located, after recapturing the city.
“Mosul will be liberated in 2016. We have a plan to liberate Nineveh,” he said at an August 23rd news conference in Baghdad.