The Iraqi Army’s push to retake the northern city could trigger a vast humanitarian crisis and fuel the country’s deep sectarian divide.
Iraq’s military offensive to recapture the northern city of Mosul from the Islamic State threatens to trigger a large-scale humanitarian crisis loaded with sectarian danger, with hundreds of thousands of civilians torn between remaining in a booby-trapped warren or running the gauntlet of Iranian-backed Shiite militias potentially blocking their way to safety west of the city.
The campaign by Iraqi security forces to push the Islamic State out of Mosul marks a decisive point in the two-year war against the Islamic State, which has been backed by U.S.-led air power and teams of American special operation forces. But as the battle gets underway in earnest, all eyes are on the fate of the mostly Sunni civilian population in Iraq’s second-largest city, who have already suffered more than two years of brutal occupation by Islamic State militants.
Even before the military operation was announced by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Monday, thousands of families had braved minefields and dodged Islamic State checkpoints to try to escape to Kurdish territory southeast of the city over the past several months in anticipation of the Iraqi Army offensive.
Both the Islamic State and the government in Baghdad are desperately trying to sway civilians. Reports from the city tell of Islamic State extremists rounding up civilians to act as human shields while killing those it suspects of communicating with the outside world or trying to leave. At the same time, American B-52 bombers have been dropping leaflets over Mosul for days, warning residents to stay put and remain indoors when the Iraqi Army enters the city and to stay away from known Islamic State positions.
U.N. officials have warned that as many as 1.5 million people in Mosul will be at risk of being targeted, caught in a crossfire, forcibly expelled, or used as human shields during the fighting.
The refugees “face an impossible choice — if they try to escape the city, there are snipers, there are landmines. It’s extremely dangerous,” said Alun McDonald, a spokesman for Save the Children, an aid group. “If they stay, they risk being caught in the crossfire and the bombing.”
The military campaign to take back Mosul picked up steam Thursday as Iraqi special forces and Kurdish Peshmerga launched operations on a new front to the north and east of the city, pushing to within several miles of its edges. The joint operation marked the closest coordination between Baghdad and Kurdish forces to date.
Even as fighting spread, some civilians in Mosul and surrounding villages are taking to the roads despite the manifold dangers. Since Monday, more than 5,500 people have fled the fighting, according to the International Organization for Migration. At the Dibaga refugee camp near Makhmur, in northern Iraq, more than 27,000 displaced Iraqis have already crowded in, and 600 more arrived Wednesday. Thousands more have fled into war-torn northeastern Syria in the past several days.
In Dibaga, seemingly endless rows of tents and prefabricated structures house the civilians, but most of the new arrivals are staying in what was once the camp’s school. Families sleep on mats in the hallway, surrounded by garbage. A long line of people waiting for food wraps around the courtyard.
“We are at capacity,” Ahmad Abdo, the camp manager, told Foreign Policy. “And we are expecting more and more people to come here.”
More than 150 families have been arriving at the camp each day. Aid groups are constructing a new camp nearby, but that will only hold a few thousand more people.
Razla Ali arrived in Dibaga on Wednesday morning after making the overnight trek with her four children. Just after sunset the night before, they sneaked out of their village, Halawah, and followed a group of other escapees for seven hours through the dark hills.
“When we saw the ISIS cars, we hid,” Ali said, referring to the Islamic State. “There were landmines on the path.”
Clad in a simple black dress, Ali sat on the wet floor, rocking her infant daughter. Her two other small children clung to her knees. Her 15-year-old son, she said, had been taken by Kurdish security forces for questioning; all men who arrive in Kurdish-controlled territory are investigated for possible ties to or cooperation with the Islamic State.
The few belongings the family was able to bring, mostly children’s clothes, sat next to her in two plastic bags. This was now their home.
Ali and her children are among the more than 3.3 million internally displaced people in Iraq, as well as tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. Nearly a million people have sought refuge in the more stable Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, straining the regional Kurdish government — which is cash-strapped due to low oil prices and a fiscal fight with Baghdad — and overwhelming humanitarian organizations.
But refugees looking for another place to flee may face a new danger. Baghdad plans to dispatch its troublesome Iranian-backed Shiite militias to the west of Mosul, both to block the path of fleeing Islamic State fighters seeking refuge in Syria and to take over the Islamic State-held city of Tal Afar. But the deployment would throw another potentially deadly obstacle in the path of Sunni refugees seeking to avoid the fighting south and east of the city and who are terrified of the Shiite militias’ reputation for abusing Sunni civilians.
The militias — numbering about 20,000 strong — are collectively known as the Popular Mobilization Units, or PMUs. They have a well-documented history of gross human rights violations; during the fight for Fallujah this year, militias abducted and killed dozens of Sunni men fleeing the fighting. The international outcry led the Shiite-led government in Baghdad to promise that the militias would not enter the predominantly Sunni city of Mosul.
The PMUs — and their Iranian Quds Force advisors — have stayed out of the fighting around Mosul thus far. But on Tuesday their leadership pledged on Facebook that they’re planning two operations: “The first in #Talafer and the second in support to the the [sic] troops heading towards the centre of Mosul.”
Speaking to reporters at the Defense Department, Army Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, said Wednesday that no U.S. advisors on the ground or airstrikes will support militias that are not part of the Iraqi government and that are “made up of multiple groups, some of which are recognized terrorist organizations.”
But those militias are preparing to place themselves directly in the path of thousands of civilians heading for the Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria. Already about 5,000 people have reached the camp from the Mosul area after trekking through Islamic State-held territory over the past 10 days, with at least another 1,000 waiting at the border to cross, according to Save the Children. The United Nations has warned that as many as 100,000 people may arrive in Syria from around Mosul.
Staffers from the aid group who have visited the Hol camp describe a desperate situation, with families being forced to live amid piles of garbage and human waste, increasing the risk of disease outbreaks. There are only 16 working latrines to be shared by the 9,000 people at the camp, all fleeing the fighting in Syria and Iraq.
The United States has tried to prepare for what it expects will be an avalanche of refugees. Last month, Washington said it would provide more than $181 million in additional humanitarian assistance to aid groups and Iraqi authorities in anticipation of the planned military operation in Mosul.
“Part of what makes this response so challenging is that it’s an incredibly isolated community and we have so little knowledge of what conditions are like in the city,” said a State Department official who helps oversee humanitarian efforts.
It was hard enough for aid agencies to plan for the recapture of Fallujah in June, when they “knew 80,000 people would be displaced and where they would go,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told FP.
But international aid agencies are not sure how many people still live in Mosul, how many will decide to flee, and in which direction they will move, the official said.
At the Dibaga camp, Ali said it wasn’t just the threat of airstrikes and the looming battle between Islamic State and Iraqi forces that pushed her to brave beatings, snipers, and landmines to flee her village.
“I don’t have milk to feed her,” she said, cradling her underweight 5-month-old daughter. “I didn’t have enough to eat, so I’m not producing milk for her.”
Another woman nearby held her own infant, an IV in her tiny arm. “She didn’t eat for four days,” the mother said.
Rebecca Collard contributed to this article with reporting from the Dibaga camp in Iraq.
Photo credit: NOE FALK NIELSEN/NurPhoto via Getty Images