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Middle East

Refugees in Iraq caught between soldiers and jihadists

Iraqi fighting forces are preparing an attack on Mosul. Thousands of people have fled the city ahead of the expected battle, yet aid organizations expect even larger waves of refugees soon.

They would have either been killed by "Islamic State" (IS) henchmen, or by Iraqi army bombs, so they decided to flee. That is how a young mother who fled Mosul with her children summed up her decision. Thus far, some 100,000 of the city's residents have come to the same conclusion.

Mosul has a population of more than one million, and has been under the control of "IS" for two years. Since the Iraqi army began slowly tightening its containment ring around city in March, ever more residents have decided to flee in an attempt to save themselves from the impending battle. "First people fled from 'IS'. Now they are fleeing from the Iraqi army," a young Iraqi soldier told the Baghdad-based daily newspaper Al Mada.

Be that as it may, the army is still far away from the city. Its containment ring is also relatively loose, and not entirely closed. Most of the Iraqi army's troops are stationed about 70 kilometers (43 miles) south of Mosul. From there, they will have to form more rings before the actual attack can commence. A further problem for the army is that they lack sufficient numbers of qualified soldiers. With the help of the US army they have been able to train some 23,000 soldiers, nevertheless, that is simply not enough to defeat the jihadists.

Hard fighting expected

Moreover: The fight for the northern Iraqi city is expected to be especially hard. There is a lot on the line for both the army and the terrorists: The Iraqi government wants to regain control of the country's second largest city, and "IS" wants to hold onto its last bastion there. Further, Mosul has great symbolic importance for "IS": "If Mosul is the capital of the caliphate in Iraq, one can expect that 'IS' fighters will defend it with extreme tenacity," a US army spokesman said while speaking with news agencies.

At the same time, many of those fleeing also fear the Iraqi army. "Forces stole my telephone and my money, then they even threatened to kill me," reports an elderly man. Many such stories circulate among the refugees. They often point to the army's recent history. First harassed by Saddam Hussein's reign of terror, then ground down by years of civil war, many Shiite soldiers look down at their Sunni compatriots as second-class citizens.

They seem to be especially mistrustful of the residents of Fallujah, a former "IS" stronghold. But they don't trust the residents of Mosul either. For months, Sunni residents have complained about the brutal methods of the Shiite forces, especially those not formally tied to the military. Many Sunni refugees claim that for them, the presence of Iraqi security forces is more threatening than that of the jihadists. "Iraqi security forces beat and then ridiculed us," reports a refugee from Fallujah.

Irak Nawaran Anti-IS-Miliz Frauen Kurdinnen Jesidinnen

Besides the Iraqi army, militias with Kurdish and Yazidi women are also fighting 'IS'

UN anticipates supply problems

The swarm of 100,000 refugees, with which the young mother and her children fled the city, will no doubt be just the first wave of people seeking protection from the fighting. The United Nations projects that eventually there may be as many as one million refugees fleeing Mosul - some two-thirds of the city's total population. "We don't know if we can manage the financial and logistical challenge," said Lise Grande, UN Special Representative and Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, during a recent press conference. Depending on the level of destruction caused by the battle, people may not be able to return for months, perhaps even longer. "We are deeply concerned," Grande added.

It is expected that large numbers of refugees will trek north toward the Kurdish autonomous regions. But there are already a great number of refugees there: To date, more than one million Iraqis have arrived in the region. Further, the Kurds are also caring for 250,000 people that have fled the war in Syria.

Irak Flüchtlingscamp in Mosul

More an more inhabitants of Mosul are arriving at this Iraqi refugee camp

Hoping for international help

They are doing so despite concerns that "IS" fighters could well have slipped in among the refugees. Just as the Iraqi army questioned some 20,000 male refugees after liberating Fallujah, the Kurds are also trying to keep "IS" fighters from seeping into their region. There have already been a number of arrests. And many refugees have complained about being treated like criminals by Kurdish security forces.

As many Syrians have fled to Iraq, so too, have a number of Iraqis fled to Syria. Many have found protection in the Kurdish-run refugee camp in the city of Al Hol. There, too, one is confronted with almost insurmountable challenges. "We are helping, yet we do not have any support from international organizations," a camp spokesman told the internet magazine Middle East Eye. All necessities - security, food and water - are currently organized locally. The camp has begun setting up offices in a number of Western capitals, among them Berlin, in hopes of improving the situation. Camp management has also asked Moscow for help.

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