In winning back Mosul, its civilian population must be protected
The countdown to Mosul’s liberation has begun as the Iraqi Army, flanked by auxiliary forces, edged closer towards the largest population centre under Islamic State (ISIS) control.
However, to truly defeat ISIS, Mosul’s civilian population must be protected. This may prove difficult given the number of humanitarian challenges.
One of those is how to deal with people who are displaced by war, to stop fuelling an environment of resentment that could be exploited by extremists.
There are as many as 1.2 million civilians trapped behind ISIS lines who are likely to be uprooted. UN refugee officials told Reuters there was a lack of suitable land and funding to facilitate resettlement.
The expected exodus of families “fleeing the fighting and horrific abuses under [ISIS] control will push Iraq past breaking point,” Amnesty International Senior Crisis Response Adviser Donatella Rovera said.
Another challenge is how to prevent civilians from being killed or tortured by their supposed liberators.
Mosul may be the last standing domino waiting to fall in the government-led campaign to exterminate ISIS after Tikrit, Ramadi, Diyala and Falluja were liberated in the past year. However, the victories that marked a high point for state forces also exposed brutality carried out by Shia militias.
A Reuters report disclosed that more than 700 Sunni men and boys were missing from Falluja, two months after the defeat of ISIS there.
These figures, it added, were far greater than what has been publicly acknowledged by US officials.
Many look to the fate of Falluja and other towns now “liberated”, with assistance from US air support, as a foretaste of what might happen in Mosul.
“Protecting civilians from needless harm needs to be paramount in any battle for control of Mosul,” said Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch deputy Middle East director.
“It’s essential for the Iraqi government to exercise effective command and control over all its forces and for allies like the US and Iran to make sure they do so.”
It is hard to imagine Iran pressuring the Iraqi government to make sure that human rights violations do not occur when recapturing Mosul.
Another challenge would be to ensure that innocent people do not get rounded up and imprisoned for merely being suspected of cooperating with ISIS.
It should be noted that the mass imprisonment of suspects in Iraqi jails transformed the facilities into breeding grounds for extremism. Some of those who may enter free of violent thoughts may change and become threats to carry out terror attacks.
Many of those who have been wrongly accused have not been compensated, leading people to think they are second-class citizens compared to those in other parts of the country.
Discriminatory policies that tore Iraq’s social fabric apart provided an opening for ISIS to capitalise on state weakness. ISIS has continued to exploit the government’s paralysis and government promises of limited militia involvement in operations ring hollow for the victims of militia crimes.
Killings, torture, discrimination and displacement have created an environment that allowed groups such as al-Qaeda to flourish in Iraq. Yet the same actions that gave rise to al-Qaeda in Iraq have also fostered the rise of ISIS.
If the same course of action is followed, is there an expectation of a different outcome?