Humanitarian-aid officials warned that as many as 700,000 of Mosul’s 1.2 million residents may flee the fighting after Iraq’s military began its long-promised offensive to retake Islamic State’s last major stronghold in the country.
“Depending on what happens in Mosul, in a worst-case scenario it could be the single largest, most complex humanitarian situation in 2016,” Lisa Grande, the United Nation’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, told reporters via a video link from Baghdad.
More than two years after Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi swept into the northern city and declared a so-called caliphate at a local mosque, thousands of Iraqi ground troops backed by Kurdish fighters advanced toward Mosul early on Monday. The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State said it’s backing the campaign with airstrikes, artillery, intelligence and advisers.
“We will soon meet at Mosul to celebrate the victory and will all stand together to punish Islamic State,” Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, wearing a military uniform, said on state television. “We will restore order and stability in Mosul.”
First, though, Iraqi officials are working to assure the besieged residents of Mosul that help is on the way and to tell them that staying put may be safer than fleeing. At the Pentagon, spokesman Peter Cook told reporters Monday that 7 million leaflets will be dropped over 48 hours to deliver that message and specific guidance such as the safest place to be in a house.
“We are extremely worried that civilians are at grave risk,” Grande of the UN said. She said the UN expects as many as 200,000 people to flee Mosul in the first week of fighting alone. Six existing emergency sites for refugees can take only 60,000 people, she said, but plans are under way for 20 camps that could hold 400,000.
Abadi said military and federal police forces were leading the operation, in an apparent effort to ease concern that the participation of pro-Iran Shiite militias might spark a sectarian conflict in the Sunni-dominated city. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said in a statement that the offensive is “a decisive moment” in the campaign to deliver Islamic State a lasting defeat.
“We are confident our Iraqi partners will prevail against our common enemy and free Mosul and the rest of Iraq from ISIL’s hatred and brutality,” Carter said, using a common abbreviation for the terrorist group.
About 4,000 Kurdish troops known as Peshmerga made advances east of Mosul, while the Iraqi military took up positions south of the city, according to a statement by the joint command of the armed forces of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.
“I would like to reassure the people of Mosul of the coordination between the Peshmerga and Iraqi army,” Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government, said in a televised speech. “We hope it will be successful, that there will be no kind of revenge and that their dignity will be protected.”
Television footage showed Iraqi tanks advancing, with plumes of black smoke billowing in the distance. Dead bodies were shown lying next to burned out vehicles that the Kurdish Rudaw news network said belonged to Islamic State.
“They were screaming in Arabic,” said one Peshmerga fighter. “I killed them. Only one fought back,” he said. “Long live the Peshmerga!”
dug trenches and rigged roads and buildings with explosives ahead of the expected offensive. Captain Jeff Davis, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman, said last week that while the campaign will be difficult, Islamic State is demoralized and is facing difficulties “exercising command and control over their own forces.”
Stephen Royale, a Middle East analyst at Control Risks, said he expects the city to fall within two months.
“IS forces are not prepared to stand and take bombardment in the city areas so they tend to move into the periphery,” Royale said. However, the “politics and the aftermath will be a lot more complicated than the actual offensive itself.”
The campaign is likely to
stoke tensions between Baghdad and neighboring Turkey. Officials in largely Sunni Turkey last week said their military would join the mission in Mosul, warning of a sectarian civil war if Shiites took the lead role.
“How can Turkey not enter Mosul?,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a televised speech in Istanbul on Monday. “Turkey is not responsible for the consequences of an operation in which it wasn’t included.”