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The next disaster

Matthias von Hein / sgbAugust 19, 2016

The good news: Things are looking bleak for "IS" in Iraq. The bad news: The upcoming battle for the liberation of the city of Mosul will cause an unprecedented crisis - and hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Irak Angriffsvorbereitungen auf Mossul
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Huseyin

Peshmerga fighters are closing in on Mosul. The Kurdish troops are only about 20 kilometers from the center of the northern Iraqi city. This comes after they took control of a number of outlying villages in the region in mid-August.

The pressure is growing on the Islamist terror militia "Islamic State" in Iraq. All the signs suggest that an offensive to drive "IS" from Mosul is imminent. A recently captured airfield near the town of Kayara is now being built into a logistics center for the planned assault - with the strong support of the US. Only in July, Washington increased its military strength in Iraq with another 560 soldiers - to assist the Iraqi government in its declared aim of retaking Mosul.

After the fall of Fallujah in June, Mosul is the last major bastion of IS in Iraq. As the country's second largest city, it has high symbolic value for IS in addition to its strategic importance. It was here that "IS" chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a caliphate two years ago.

Up to one million refugees

But the liberation offensive will involve the risk that the estimated approximately 1.3 million civilians remaining in Mosul will be caught in the crossfire. Both the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are preparing for large waves of refugees.

Irak - Abu Bakr Al-Bagdadi zeigt sich in einem Youtube-Video
IS chief Baghdadi founded his 'caliphate' in MosulImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

People living near Mosul are already leaving their homes, ICRC spokeswoman Cecilia Goin told DW from Baghdad. The UNHCR has counted 43,000 internal refugees from Mosul since March. As fighting intensifies, the number of refugees from Mosul could rise to one million, she said.

International aid organizations are bracing for this expected humanitarian crisis. The UNHCR said three refugee camps had already been built in the area, with another two being evaluated. It is also looking for possible sites for further camps.

The expected wave of refugees from Mosul encounters a country where already more than 3 million people have been uprooted - about 10 percent of the population. The UNHCR says almost 90,000 people fled the fighting for Fallujah after it began in May. Returning to the city, much of which lies in ruins, is proving difficult and slow. The destruction was vast and "IS" left behind large numbers of booby traps before fleeing, Robert Blecher, a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group, said in an interview with DW.

Nordirak Kinder Flüchtlinge Flüchtlingslager
Some ten percent of Iraqis are refugees, like these children near MosulImage: Reuters/A. Jalal

Fear of 'IS' and fear of liberation

Blecher said the upcoming offensive in Mosul was too unpredictable to make any realistic forecasts. But one thing, he said, was certain: "A lot of people will die, it will be very bloody and therefore the citizens of Mosul have as much to fear from their liberation as they do living under 'IS.'" Contributing to this fear is the fact that the people of Mosul do not know who exactly their liberators will be. Are they Kurds, Shiite militias, or the regular Arab army? Formerly a multiethnic city with diverse religious communities, after two years of "IS" rule, Mosul is now a predominantly Sunni Arab city.

So far, operations to drive out "IS" in Iraq have followed much the same pattern, Blecher said. First, leaflets warn the population to flee from the areas where the heaviest fighting was expected. Airstrikes will aim to weaken "IS" positions. Finally, troops will advance on the city. But in the past, "IS" often prevented the population from fleeing and used people as human shields.

To supply all Iraqi refugees, the UNHCR estimates a budget of around half a billion euros. In early August, it was able to cover just 37 percent of this amount.