Several hundred Islamic State fighters are still clinging to control of a small part of the city of Mosul in Iraq, but Iraqi commanders and U.N. officials said Thursday that thousands of civilians are trapped there, in extreme danger from the fighting raging around them.
IS militants have pressed their family members into the fight for Mosul, now in its final stages, and Iraqi commanders said the extremists have threatened to blow up any civilians who try to flee to safety.
"The women are fighting with their children right beside them,'' Lieutenant General Sami al-Aridhi of Iraq's elite counterterrorism service said.
"It's making us hesitant to use airstrikes" against the remaining Islamic State fighters, he added. "If it weren't for this, we could be finished in just a few hours.''
The Iraqis said thousands of civilians are trapped in Mosul's Old City, once a maze of alleys and narrow passages among ancient buildings but now largely a sea of wreckage.
A U.N. humanitarian official in Iraq, Lise Grande, told the French press agency that the pockets of Mosul still held by IS could be sheltering "as many as 15,000 civilians, possibly even as high as 20,000." That estimate was not confirmed by the Iraqi military, although General al-Aridhi agreed the remaining civilians are in great danger.
The militants have used explosives to stop any civilians trying to escape, he said, and they have deployed female suicide bombers near buildings where civilians have been hiding. "They have been waiting for [Iraqi] troops to reach them, and then blow themselves up," the commander said.
Mosul was once by far the most populous area controlled by Islamic State, and the place where the militants declared their "caliphate" over parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria. Now it is in ruins, with thousands of residential buildings seriously damaged or destroyed, and attention has begun to turn toward the task of eventually rebuilding the ancient city on the Euphrates River in northern Iraq.
In Washington, the State Department announced Thursday it will provide an additional $150 million to help stabilize Iraq after the Islamic State militants are driven out.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will work through the U.N. Development Program, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said, adding: "The funds will support efforts to establish basic security, re-establish essential services, restore local economies, stabilize communities and allow Iraqis to finally return home."
The United Nations estimates it will cost more than $700 million to restore basic services and repair war damage in Mosul. USAID said the stabilization program it is supporting is intended to restore water, electricity and sewage services, provide health care and rebuild the education system.
The U.S. funds, part of a total commitment of more than $265 million over two years, also will provide temporary, cash-for-work employment to jump-start local economies, officials said.
State Department correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report.