As the attacks on Mosul and nearby Iraqi towns intensify, civilians are fleeing the area, leaving the government and humanitarian organizations looking for ways to protect them.
Some 3,000 families have left Tal Afar, a town on the road between the cities of Mosul and Raqqa, which are held by the self-proclaimed militant caliphate known as Islamic State. About half are heading toward Syria and the other half toward Kurdish territory in northern Iraq. In Mosul, likewise, dozens of families have fled the artillery fire and violence for the safety of humanitarian centers set up for displaced civilians.
As Iraqi government forces and the US-led coalition move forward in their battle to retake the area – particularly the key city of Mosul – from Islamic State insurgents, fears of revenge killings and being caught in the crossfire have pushed families to leave. The challenge continues to be protecting civilians while acting decisively against IS power in the region.
Before the battle for Mosul began on Oct. 17, Iraq already had 3.3 million displaced people, and the United Nations warned that the humanitarian effort in Mosul could become the “single largest and most complex in the world” this year. The UN estimates that more than 68,000 people have registered as displaced, and the numbers could be much higher. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told the Associated Press that 8,300 Iraqis had been displaced from Mosul and surrounding areas in the past four days alone.
Despite the efforts of the government and humanitarian groups to prepare for mass evacuations of the city, the UN warned on Saturday that there are more wounded civilians and military than these groups can care for.
One reason people are fleeing: concerns about revenge killings by Popular Mobilization forces, or Hashid Shaabi, troops who have been dispatched to encircle Tal Afar as part of a push to recapture Mosul. The troops, backed by Iran, are Shiite, unlike the remaining population of the town. The Shiites in Tal Afar fled in 2014 when the Islamic State group, which claims to be a hard-line Sunni group, arrived.
“People are fleeing due to the Hashid’s advance, there are great fears among the civilians,” Nuraldin Qablan, who represents Tal Afar in the Nineveh provincial council, told Reuters.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said that all citizens would be protected, promising that the fighting force sent to retake Tal Afar would be as diverse as the city.
In Mosul, members of the Islamic State group are using the proximity of the city’s 1 million civilians to protect themselves from intensifying attacks by the US-led coalition. With the battle so close, and the effect on ordinary people of military tactics like taking out bridges, some residents have decided to leave the city.
Those who choose to leave may not be going to safety, either. Authorities believe that some of those leaving are heading deeper into the militant group’s territory, where aid cannot be sent to them.
With that in mind, officials like Mr. Qablan have encouraged the Kurdish authorities to help create a route out of IS-held territory for these people.
“We ask Kurdish authorities to open safe passage for them,” he said.
Material from the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.