Internally displaced persons (IDPs) at UNHCR camp in Kurdistan Region. Rudaw photo.
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Months of waiting for the offensive to liberate the Iraqi city of Mosul from the clutches of the Islamic State (ISIS) may be coming to an end: hundreds of US forces have arrived at an air base near Mosul, and there are indications that the joint assault to retake the city could come as early as next month.
CNN reported on Saturday that US soldiers had arrived at an airbase in the town of Qayyara, which was liberated by Iraqi army last month and whose strategic value lies in its proximity to Mosul: the airbase is only 62 kilometers south of Mosul.
The American soldiers at the airbase are reportedly there as advisors who are helping the Iraqis bring equipment to the base, which will be used as a launch-pad. They will also advise them throughout the upcoming operation.
CNN quoted unnamed US military sources as saying that the operation against Mosul could begin as early as October.
This follows promises by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi over the course of the last year that Mosul will be liberated by the end of 2016. Something the head of United States Central Command (CENTCOM), General Joseph Votel, said was possible last month.
“It’s the (Iraqi) prime minister’s objective to have that done by the end of the year,” Votel said, “My assessment is that we can meet … the prime minister’s objectives, if that’s what he chooses to do.”
Votel also said that Iraqi forces “are on track” to achieve their goal of recapturing Mosul.
However, following the Iraqi parliament’s vote of no confidence against the former defense minister, Khaled al-Obeidi, late last month, Iraq remains without a military chief.
The deployment of US soldiers to Qayyarah came as the Kurdistan Region’s President Masoud Barzani met with Iraqi President Fuad Masum in Erbil on Saturday. The Mosul operation was the “central focus” of their meeting.
According to President Masum’s advisor, Abdullah Aliyawai, both presidents want to see the operation against Mosul begin soon, otherwise, they worry, “refugees and IDPs (internally displaced persons) are going to suffer the bad weather during winter.”
If the assault on Mosul comes in October, that means more IDPs will be suffering under winter temperatures in Kurdistan that sometimes drop below zero.
While Kurdistan has long been making preparations, it still isn’t expected to be able to handle a large and sudden influx of displaced persons from Mosul.
“The current capacity of the Kurdistan Regional Government to respond to the new waves of displacement is close to non-existent,” read the contingency plan drafted by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) interior ministry.
The ministry said that facilities are already “overstretched” due to Kurdistan’s severe financial crisis and some 1.8 million IDPs and war refugees from Syria being sheltered by the KRG.
Last Thursday the Kurdistan Region’s Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told a high-level US delegation that the region simply cannot afford to take in more displaced persons.
“Given the current situation, the Kurdistan Region cannot afford to receive any more internally displaced people,” read a KRG statement released after the meeting.
“That is why the Kurdish prime minister deemed it necessary for the international community to support the Kurdistan Region and Iraq so that it can provide necessary services to those displaced people expected to head towards the Kurdistan Region after the Mosul operation,” the statement added.
Towns like Debaga in Kurdistan, home to a displaced persons camp of the same name, has seen its population multiply 15-fold over the course of the last two years, due to the number of displaced people seeking sanctuary in the region, with more newcomers arriving every day.
The Kurdistan Region has begun building five refugee camps in Duhok province to host at least 500,000 Mosul civilians who might flee the upcoming offensive. However, given the severe financial crisis in the region, these projects may not be finished on time, especially if the long anticipated offensive against Mosul begins as early as next month.
An estimated two million people presently live in ISIS-occupied Mosul.
The UN’s Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien told Rudaw last month that “a good proportion” of the more than $2 billion the US is going to provide Iraq for post-ISIS reconstruction efforts in the coming two years “will be focused on stabilization.”
“Now that means (out of) the $2 billion or so maybe about half a billion will be most specifically allocated towards humanitarian immediate needs,” he said.
The rest, he explained, “will be perhaps a little more invested in the early recovery, development and stabilization that you would expect in order to try and underpin not only people’s survival but their ability to survive in a sustainable way so that would also have to underpin livelihoods.”