Civilians flee al-Mithaq in southeastern Mosul last week. Photo: Ahmad Mousa/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Civilians are taking the brunt of the military operation to retake Mosul, making up nearly half of the casualties as ISIS continues to directly target them and fears of a siege grow in western Mosul.
Out of all the people who have been wounded by gunshots since the operation began, “47 percent of all casualties are civilians,” said the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Lise Grande, in a press conference on Wednesday.
Expectations for civilian casualties in conflict would normally be around 15 – 20 percent, she detailed, but in Mosul the numbers are much higher. “It’s clear that this is because of direct targeting by combatants and in the majority of cases, the overwhelming majority, civilians are being directly targeted by ISIL. They’re being shot as they try and leave the city and they’re being shot as they try and secure food and other resources,” Grande said.
Civilians are also at risk from IEDs, booby traps, and being used as human shields, she added, noting that the information is based on interviews with victims as UN personnel are not in Mosul.
The Iraqi government, at the outset of the military operation, made the decision to advise civilians to remain in their homes rather than flee and creating problems of dealing with mass displacement of civilians. Grande said that the UN is in constant discussion with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to ensure civilians are protected.
According to the UN’s figures, an estimated 450,000 civilians are living in eastern Mosul, 400,000 of who are in liberated districts as the ISF have retaken some 75 – 80 percent of the eastern half of the city. An estimated 750,000 are still trapped in western Mosul, living under the full control of ISIS.
In western Mosul, where supply routes into the city have been cut off six weeks, there are concerns that a siege-like situation may develop.
“Siege is a very real possibility,” said Grande. “We don’t know that that will happen, but we worry that it might.”
“A siege of 750,000 people would have absolutely enormous implications,” she said, noting that in the UN’s experience, 90 percent of efforts to break sieges fail. Knowing these statistics, the UN is trying to get as much aid into western Mosul as possible in anticipation of a siege.
Already, some siege-like conditions are developing as electricity and water supplies are intermittent and food prices are skyrocketing. For example, she said, 1kg of sugar in eastern Mosul costs 1,000 IQD ($0.85). In western Mosul, it sells for ten times the price.
Grande detailed that the UN is discussing with the ISF and global coalition options to get supplies into western Mosul including airdrops and bringing supplies in via the Tigris River, but nothing is yet agreed.
Grande commended the ISF who adopted a humanitarian concept of operations, putting protection of civilians at the centre of their military operation. While this has slowed down military progress, she said the Iraqi forces “deserve enormous credit” for their efforts to protect civilians.
The Mosul operation is just one part of the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. Before Mosul, the humanitarian crisis in Iraq was one of the largest in the world, second only to Syria, said Grande.
“Since the rise of ISIL, 4.5 million people have been displaced in Iraq,” she said. Over the past year, 1 million have been able to return but 3.5 million still remain out of their homes. Meeting their needs will take years.
“When Daesh is defeated in Iraq, that’s a military success. But the humanitarian crisis is a legacy – it just keeps going,” she said. If people are not helped to go home and rebuild their lives, “the conditions which bred, which led to the rise of ISIL will continue to be there.”