As US-allied forces press Mosul, why human rights groups are worried

The UN says it has reports of atrocities committed by Islamic State fighters against nearby villagers.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
A newly displaced woman runs after she jumped over a back wall and rushed to grab humanitarian packages, as smoke rises from a burning oil refinery at a processing centre in Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday.

More than 1,000 people living in villages near Mosul have been evacuated to nearby camps by Iraqi special forces, amid reports of atrocities committed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State against civilians in recent days.

About 9,000 people have been displaced since US-backed coalition forces launched an offensive on Oct. 17 to retake the ISIS-held city, according to the International Organization for Migration. It’s part of a wave that the coalition and international aid group are ill-prepared to manage: As many as 200,000 are expected to be driven from their homes during the offensive, though camps set up nearby can only accommodate about a third of them.

The Iraqi government and Kurdish fighters are urging civilians to stay. But as they press the area around the city from several directions, in a battle that the coalition believes could last months, human rights groups fear that ISIS militants will use residents as human shields, and punish those who try to leave.

In villages to the south of the city, ISIS members are said to have killed 15 people and tortured six others who they believed were related to a tribal leader who was collaborating with the government coalition, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In one village, Iraqi forces have found the bodies of 70 civilians shot dead, though it’s unclear who was responsible for the killings. Some 50 former Iraqi police officers held by ISIS in a building near Mosul have been executed.

And three women and three girls being forcibly relocated were shot dead by ISIS fighters because they were lagging behind the group, commissioner spokesman Rupert Colville told the Associated Press, adding that they were lagging because one of the girls was disabled.

"We very much fear that these will not be the last such reports we receive of such barbaric acts," he said.

Mr. Colville also pointed to a forcible eviction carried out by Kurdish authorities, who ordered all internally displaced people living outside of refugee camps to move into the camps, some of which have little space for newcomers.

"We understand that hundreds of families have now been evicted by Kurdish Security Forces, and are worried that if the evictions continue, it could significantly complicate the already alarming situation of mass displacement in the region," he said.

The group has been preparing for the battle for months, and as the Christian Science Monitor’s Anna Mulrine Grobe wrote earlier this month, it is expected to wage a ferocious defense of the city – its largest and most symbolically important, as the site where the caliphate was declared:

Islamic State fighters are intent on trying to use civilians as human shields, and they are severely punishing any caught leaving the city. 

In addition, Pentagon officials anticipate houses wired for destruction with explosives and other booby traps, and ditches filled with oil that can be ignited, filling the sky with dense smoke that makes it more difficult for the US military to conduct aerial assaults in support of the Iraqi troops.

As US-allied forces have advanced, they’ve also uncovered what one US military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, described as “quite extensive tunneling systems” as long as a mile long.

"They've really dug in, literally, and started putting up the berms, the trenches, the tunneling systems," the official told the AP.

Iraqi forces, meanwhile, have discovered T-walls, or large concrete barriers that block off streets, inside Mosul, as well as homes rigged with explosives that detonate with a flip of a light switch.

Retaking the city would be a major victory for the Iraqi government, but rebuilding will take more than brick and mortar. As the Monitor’s editorial board wrote in August, Iraqi officials will face the work of forming bridges across sectarian differences.

[R]etaking Mosul could bring a fresh start for its young democracy by restoring the country’s historic harmony between Sunnis and Shiites. For too long, terrorist groups like IS, as well as corrupt Iraqi leaders – and indeed other states in the Middle East – have exploited sectarian differences between Islam’s two main branches. After years of such violence – by Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda, and now IS – Iraqis may be in a better mood to reconcile.

Those who despair over this possibility happening need to know that about 40 percent of Iraqis were from Sunni-Shia mixed marriages until the 2003 American invasion. (The children of such marriages are dubbed “Sushis.”) And ever since IS took over a third of Iraq’s territory two years ago, the Iraqi Army has made major reforms that have brought more Sunnis into its ranks.  Meanwhile, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has tried to keep a delicate balance of Sunnis and Shiites in his government.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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