Battle for Mosul: UN, aid organizations brace for humanitarian challenge

The UN's refugee agency says it will soon have enough shelters for 150,000 people fleeing Mosul, as Iraqi and Kurdish forces battle to retake the city from the Islamic State.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
Newly displaced people sit at the school at Debaga Camp for displaced people, on the outskirts of Erbil, Iraq, on Monday.

One week after Iraq launched an operation to retake Mosul from the self-proclaimed Islamic State group, the United Nations' refugee agency has said it will soon have enough shelters in place for up to 150,000 residents displaced by the fighting. 

Some 7,500 people have already fled the outskirts of the city, said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi in a press conference Monday. Another 1,000 Iraqis have crossed into Hassakeh in northeastern Syria. 

Iraqi forces pushing toward Mosul, which has been held by the Islamic State for two years, have been met with strong resistance from the militants. 

Thus far, Iraqi forces have reclaimed Bartella, a historically Christian town roughly nine miles east of Mosul, and captured the main government compound in the nearby town of Hamdaniyah. Kurdish forces known as the peshmerga have also driven militants out of several villages to the north of Mosul. 

But while going up against Islamic State forces, Iraq is faced with another challenge: protecting citizens stuck in the middle of it all. 

With limited funding and 3.3 million Iraqis already displaced at the start of the battle last week, the humanitarian operation in Mosul could be the "single largest and most complex in the world," said Stephen O’Brien, the UN humanitarian chief. As Scott Peterson reported for The Christian Science Monitor last week: 

[W]ith shelter currently available for only 60,000 people in camps, the United Nations and aid agencies are facing a potentially monumental challenge in helping that population – from scenarios as diverse as tens of thousands of Mosul residents being trapped as human shields to an overnight exodus of more than 1 million people. ...

Construction of new sites are under way for 250,000 more people; food rations for 220,000 families are ready for distribution; and 143,000 sets of emergency household items are stockpiled, said Mr. O’Brien in a statement. Aid agencies have used available funds “as efficiently as possible,” while working “under some of the most difficult and insecure conditions in the world.” 

But uncertainty reigns as much for the relief agencies as it does for Iraq’s unlikely alliance of forces – from Kurds and Shiite militias to reformed and freshly trained Army and police units that have earned a string of recent victories against IS. None know what surprises IS has readied for them on the battlefield.  

"There are questions of where people are going to go, how quickly they are going to get out, and how long it’s going to take them to get to places where we can help," Chris Weeks, a spokesman for aid agency World Vision International, told the Monitor last week. 

The Iraqi government has asked Mosul residents to remain in their homes to prevent a mass exodus from the city. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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