More than 62,000 civilians are believed to have fled Mosul in recent weeks as Iraqi forces prepare for a final assault to retake the city from the Islamic State terror group. And there are growing indications they may be among the last to safely escape.
Despite talk by U.S. and Iraqi officials about setting up safe routes and government-controlled screening centers to handle the flow of fleeing civilians, aid groups say they are seeing few indications Iraq is serious about making adequate preparations.
Instead, they say Iraqi military planners seem intent on locking down Mosul in an effort to make sure no one — IS fighter or innocent civilian — is able to leave.
“What we’re hearing is that the nature of the operation now has fundamentally changed and what the military is speaking about now is an operation in which the local population would be sealed in, so to speak,” Human Rights Watch senior Iraq researcher Belkis Wille told VOA.
“They’re calling on civilians in Mosul to put white flags on their doors and simply to stay there,” she said.
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which has been helping tend to almost 38,000 Iraqis who have fled from Mosul and surrounding areas at the Debaga camp, is likewise alarmed.
“There are no identified safe routes in place to allow people to escape,” said Wolfgang Gressmann, NRC country director.
FILE - Workers prepare a tent camp in Khazer west of the Kurdish regional capital Erbil, Iraq, Oct. 11, 2016, for people expected to flee Mosul when the battles for Mosul begins.
Calamity to come?
It could be a humanitarian disaster in the making.
“We expect hundreds of thousands to attempt to flee when the fighting gets more intense,” Gressmann said. “With no safe exits, they will risk getting trapped in the crossfire while we will be unable to reach them.”
According to United Nations estimates, as many as 1.5 million people are living in Mosul, and officials expect as many as 200,000 to flee as soon as the battle for the city begins in earnest.
But with the start of the final assault weeks or days away, long-sought accommodations for displaced Iraqis are lagging far behind.
U.N. officials say six displacement camps have been built so far, capable of housing a total of about 50,000 people. And while there are plans to ready 11 more, humanitarian organizations are quick to point out they have received only about half of the $280 million they requested in July to meet the needs of the expected flood of civilians.
Aid agencies also say as many as 800,000 civilians could flee as the fighting intensifies. And in a worst-case scenario, in which as many as 1 million people flee Mosul, a top U.N. official warns the costs would skyrocket to perhaps as much as $1 billion.
This U.N. map shows expected paths of escape from Mosul
Some groups say Iraqi officials are telling them the lack of preparedness for displaced civilians is one of the reasons they now want to close off all escape routes from Mosul.
“They’re saying this is a way to minimize civilian casualties, minimize demolition of buildings, destruction of the city and therefore it doesn’t really matter in a situation like that, that camps aren’t ready, that screening centers haven’t been established yet,” said Wille, of the Human Rights Watch.
But Wille thinks that may be nothing more than wishful thinking.
“I think it’s unrealistic to think that civilians in Mosul who have been living under ISIS now for two years, some number won’t take the opportunity to flee,” she said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
FILE - A convoy of Iraqi security forces advances on the outskirts of Mosul, Oct. 12, 2016, to fight against Islamic State militants.
Trusting the Iraqis
The U.S.-led coalition, which has been helping Iraqi forces prepare for the battle to retake Mosul, has consistently endorsed the way its leaders have handled the planning.
The coalition’s director of partner force development, Canadian Armed Forces Brigadier General D.J. Anderson, told reporters earlier this month that he has “every confidence that the Iraqis are developing a solid plan.”
Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Col. John Dorrian told Pentagon reporters Wednesday the Iraqi government is directing 20 camps for displaced civilians and working with humanitarian groups to pre-position resources.
“The government of Iraq is working with the U.N. and nongovernment organizations to plan for the internally displaced persons that may flee the fighting in Mosul,” he said. “Coalition planners are attending those meetings and assisting the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] with their planning efforts.”
Other top U.S. officials have emphasized a desire to keep the plans for how to handle the civilians fleeing Mosul as quiet as possible, as long as possible.
“We’d know where we’d like the IDP flows to go, but do you want to preview that too early to give the enemy exactly where they want the IDPs to go?” U.S. Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk asked recently.
U.S. officials also suggest having civilians stay in place, also known as white flagging, during the battle for Mosul could minimize their exposure to danger.
“We have seen ISIL use human shields during its retreats from cities such as Fallujah, Ramadi and Manbij,” a U.S. intelligence official told VOA, using another acronym for IS. “We have no reason to doubt ISIL may use this deplorable tactic again.”
FILE - Fighters from predominantly Sunni Arab force take part in a training session before the upcoming battle to recapture Mosul in Bashiqa, Oct. 6, 2016.
Aid groups and human rights organizations are not so sure.
“This practice [white flagging] was used in Fallujah,” said Gressmann, of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “Rather than provide safety, it invited ISIS fighters to enter civilian homes for protection or force civilians to move with them from location to location.”
There are also persistent concerns that by forgoing the use of safety corridors and screening centers run by government-approved forces — with help from aid groups — that Mosul’s Sunni civilians will be exposed to the wrath of Shia-dominated militias.
Already, Iraqi officials have made clear that these forces, also known as Popular Mobilization Forces, will be used to reclaim Mosul despite allegations that some of them are directly responsible for the death, torture and disappearances of hundreds of Sunni men and boys from Fallujah.
U.S. officials have tried to downplay such concerns, emphasizing that any forces coming into contact with civilians will be under the control of the Iraqi government.
“I don’t know where that confidence is coming from,” Amnesty International’s Donatella Rovera told VOA. “There is obviously no disincentive for those among the forces and the militias who are likely to participate in the Mosul operation to behave any differently than they have done up till now.”
FILE - An Islamic State fighter hoists the terrorist group's flag and a weapon in the Iraqi city of Mosul, June 23, 2014.