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Mosul terror

November 4, 2016

As the anti-IS coaltion moves in on Mosul in northeren Iraq citizens in the besieged city are being abused as human shields by "Islamic State" militants. Resistance is dealt with harshly; not even children are safe.

Irak kurdische Kämpfer um Mossul
Image: Reuters/A. Lashkari

Troops from the international military coalition battling the "Islamic State" (IS) terrorist organization are moving ever closer to the center of Mosul. Troops are advancing faster than planned, says US Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, Brett McGurk. That means that the situation will not only become precarious for "IS" fighters, but also for citizens being held captive in the city. The United Nations recently announced that tens of thousands of citizens in Mosul are at the mercy of "IS," which is in turn using those people as human shields.

"ISIL's depraved, cowardly strategy is to try to use the presence of civilian hostages to render certain points, areas, or military forces immune from military action, essentially using tens of thousands of men, women and children as human shields," said Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the UN Human Rights Commission.  

Terror against civilians

The jihadists have increasingly tormented Mosul's citizens. In late October "IS" militants beheaded a family father because, as international media reports claimed, he had insulted "IS" leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. "IS" militants also exploded a bomb during a meeting of the city's Shiite residents, killing more than 40 people. At the same time "IS" also executed 57 of its own fighters, who were accused of being collaborators.

"Such acts are a clear sign that the terror organization is not only losing support among the people, but also within its own ranks," explained Sabah al-Numani, spokesman for Iraq's anti-terror unit, while addressing reporters.

Karte, Infografik Anti-IS-Koalition offensive on Mosul ENG

Almost impossible to flee

Large numbers of "IS" fighters left Mosul for Syria months ago. Those jihadis who decided to remain in the Iraqi metropolis appear determined to defend themselves with every means possible. When abandoning outlying villages, "IS" kidnapped residents in those places and brought them to the center of Mosul. Now, says German Public Broadcasting (ARD) correspondent Björn Blaschke, they are using those people to further reinforce the city's human shield.

Eyewitnesses report that many people have retreated into their homes in an attempt to hide from "IS." Blaschke says, "We hear that such people are now being dragged out of their houses and killed in the most brutal ways in an attempt to keep others from even thinking about fleeing."

'Ever more brutal forms of execution'

According to eyewitnesses, it seems to have become a hobby among the jihadists to come up with ever more brutal forms of execution, says ARD journalist Anna Osius, who was in Iraq until very recently. Draconian punishments for the tiniest infractions seem to be the order of the day. "Women say that they can only leave the house fully veiled and wearing gloves. They say cellphones are totally forbidden and children are not allowed to play ball outside."

The jihadists, it seems, have no problem using violence on society's youngest and weakest members. Osius says children that fled Mosul told her "IS" was cutting off civilians' hands. "A young mother with a baby cried as she told me about being tortured by 'IS' while she was in full pregnancy - that tells me that all sense of humanity is simply gone."

Civilians have been put in even greater danger by the battle over the city. "We must not forget that the large majority of those in Mosul are innocent people that have had to suffer greatly under the brutal reign of 'IS,'" explains Alex Milutinovic, who is responsible for Iraq at the International Red Cross. Milutinovic says that ways must be found for people to flee the city as quickly as possible, "otherwise they will be trapped."

Irak irakische Bundespolizei Mosul
Iraqi government police pass through a checkpoint south of MosulImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/M. Drobnjakovic

Urban combat a matter of time

There is also concern that Shiite militias allied with the anti-IS coalition may attack Sunnis in and around Mosul. According to UN reports, such massacres took place at the "IS" stronghold of Fallujah. The anti-IS coalition, however, claims to exercise the utmost care for the safety of civilians. One could theoretically eliminate every "IS" fighter from the air, says ARD correspondent Björn Blaschke, but because they are moving among civilians, or using them as human shields, coalition forces have opted not to attack them. "But that means urban combat will have to begin at some point."

If civilians manage to flee Mosul, it may perhaps delay martyrdom, but would in no way erase the threat altogether. Despite major efforts, the capacity to take in and care for large numbers of refugees outside Mosul simply does not exist. Some 60,000 beds stand ready in Iraq's Kurdish regions, says Björn Blaschke, but that is not nearly enough. The UN estimates that up to one million people will attempt to flee the city.