Displaced Iraqi civilians arrive in Peshmerga-controlled areas west of Kirkuk in this file image. Photo: Marwan Ibrahim/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The number of people fleeing Hawija and surrounding areas more than doubled in the last half of August over the first half, the UN reported as forces gear up to launch an offensive to oust ISIS from the region.
“There has been a sharp rise in displacement” from the Hawija area that spans Saladin and Kirkuk provinces over the past two weeks, the UNHCR stated in an update published Thursday.
The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) arriving at camps in Kirkuk more than doubled in the last half of August, 918 individuals up from 421.
In addition, the UNHCR documented 1,200 individuals who fled westward, into Saladin province.
The UNHCR noted that Iraqi forces air-dropped leaflets in August in the ISIS-controlled areas “advising the local population to avoid areas where extremist groups are positioned.”
The Hawija pocket, centred on the town of Hawija 55 kilometres southwest of Kirkuk, contains fewer than 1,000 ISIS fighters, according to coalition figures, half of what was estimated in Tal Afar, but they are a large security threat.
In the course of the past few months, ISIS has been carrying out deadly hit-and-run operations against the Peshmerga and civilians in the regions south and west of Kirkuk, particularly in Tuz Khurmatu and Daquq. Many of the militants came from the group's Hawija stronghold.
Because of the recent spate of deadly attacks, the Peshmerga have closed corridors on the Daquq frontline, the UNHCR reported, noting that they are working with Kurdish officials to re-open the routes in order to give the IDPs “more options to access safety.”
The UNHCR also noted it was concerned about forced returns of IDPs from urban areas of Kirkuk. Most of the 100 families who were notified to leave Kirkuk in the last half of August were from Anbar and Saladin provinces, with a few from Hawija and Nineveh.
Noting “widespread fear and anxiety among IDP families,” the UNHCR urged Kirkuk authorities to end forced returns.