Almost a week ago, the anti-"IS" coalition launched the Mosul offensive. The civilian population faces the threat of being caught in the crossfire and bombing. Yet attempts to leave the city are punished.
Oxfam's Iraq country representative, Andres Gonzalez Rodriguez, estimates that more than 10,000 people have fled the "Islamic State" ("IS") stronghold since the Mosul military operation was launched. Rodriguez, who is stationed in the Kurdish city of Erbil, also told DW that only sparsely populated areas have been liberated from "IS."
Now, as fighting approaches the city,he believes there will be up to 200,000 more refugees in the coming three weeks. Rodriguez points out that to him, the operation did not begin on October 16, but instead in March of this year when the Iraqi government began to open the corridor for the Mosul offensive. Because of the fighting there, 150,000 people already left their homes, according to the Oxfam representative's estimate. That means that the already massive number of domestic refugees in Iraq - 3 million - will surge yet again.
Escape punished with death
With every day that passes, the fate of civilians in Mosul draws more and more attention. The more than one million inhabitants of Mosul are, to some extent, being held hostage by "Islamic State," which has been accused of using them as a human shield. A spokeswoman for the UN Human Rights Council reported that "IS" moved 550 families from neighboring villages to an area close to "IS" facilities in the city. Renad Mansour, an Iraq expert at Chatham House, told DW that "IS" would harshly punish all escape attempts - even with death.
However, anyone who managed to escape would face a new set of problems. In addition to the usual difficulties refugees have, they will also be met with suspicion by the Iraqi government and Kurdish authorities because they lived under "Islamic State" rule for two years.
"The refugees must submit themselves to a tough screening process," explained Mansour. "Iraqi leaders and the Kurds want to be sure that no "IS" fighters are hidden among the refugees. Male refugees over the age of 14 will first be examined in special camps before they can join their families in normal camps, explained Florian Gottschalk, who serves as a liaison for Technische Hilfswerk THW, a German government relief organization.
Aid organizations are prepared
At least the UN and various NGOs like the Red Cross and Oxfam have prepared for the Mosul offensive and are ready to help the expected mass of refugees. Oxfam representative Rodriguez said that everyone has learned from past mistakes, referring to the recapturing of Ramadi and Fallujah this year. There was a lack of coordination in past relief efforts and not enough needed material was available on site. Now everyone has had more time to prepare. On Friday, the deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Patrick Hamilton, stated that the ICRC was prepared to help up to 800,000 people.
The strategy of "Islamic State" in the battle will ultimately determine whether masses of people will leave the city. The question is whether "IS" will take on Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in extensive urban combat. Then the city, fortified and filled with mines, would be massively destroyed. But "IS" might give up Mosul and its fighters could try to vanish in the masses of refugees. "Experts are arguing about that," said Florian Gottschalk from THW. "Some say that "IS" may try to immortalize itself by blowing up the city and not letting anyone out. Or it may open the gates and let everyone out so they too can escape in the rush."
In light of Mosul's great symbolic significance, it looks like "IS" will probably fight. Mosul is the place where "IS" leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of his caliphate in 2014. That is a bad omen. When the Iraqi army recaptured Tikrit a year and half ago, 400 "IS" fighters managed to stand up against an army of 25,000 for a month. According to estimates, about 5,000 "IS" fighters are currently entrenched in Mosul.