The U.S.-backed Iraqi offensive on the city of Mosul is stalling as Islamic State militants continue to use civilian human shields to block major operations.
“If there were no civilians, we’d just burn it all,” an Iraqi counter-terrorism commander told The Washington Post. He said ISIS floods the streets with civilians when his forces enter, stopping the deployment of heavy munitions. “I couldn’t bomb with artillery or tanks, or heavy weapons. I said, ‘We can’t do anything,” he lamented.
The civilian presence also prevents the U.S. from providing air cover to the advancing Iraqi troops.
The United Nations estimates nearly 1.5 million civilians remain in Mosul, and the U.S. and Iraq have no plans to allow civilians to flee amidst the operation. “A mass exodus from that city is not necessarily something that the Iraqis believe will be in the best interest of that population,” Pentagon Spokesman Peter Cook told reporters in October.
Cook echoed fears that ISIS militants will use an established humanitarian corridor to disguise themselves as civilians, and mount an insurgency in other areas of Iraq. Iraqi officers told The Washington Post ISIS occasionally lets civilians flee as a method of forcing a pause in battle.
“They are coming from everywhere. We don’t know if they are fighters or civilians. They are carrying bags — we don’t know what’s inside,” an Iraqi commander was overheard saying on a military radio.
Even if the civilians fled, it is unclear where they would go.
“The military campaign is going to take off soon, and on the humanitarian side we aren’t yet ready,” The United Nations top humanitarian official told The Washington Post in early October. The U.N. faces a $165 million shortfall to provide even the most basic humanitarian assistance, and is reportedly only going to be able to build four standard refugee camps. The four camps will have a maximum capacity of 280,000, hardly a fourth of the expected refugees spawned by the Mosul operation.
Commanders said the difficulty in dealing with the large civilian presence is likely to contradict Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s pledge to have Mosul in Iraqi hands by the end of the year.
The ISIS tactic of laying explosives throughout Mosul and its surrounding villages, are deepening fears civilians will not be able to return to their homes.
“We think it will last for several years to decontaminate the area. The type of contamination and the type of explosive hazard is very new and different from what the de-mining world has known so far,” the head of missions in Iraq for Handicap International told US News and World Report.
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