Mosul attack: Isis could pose as civilians during Iraqi effort to reclaim city, putting up to 1m people at risk

Civilians in the city are rising up against the jihadists as long-awaited US-backed Iraqi army offensive begins, reports say 

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Fears are growing for the safety of the estimated 1.5 million people living inside the Isis-controlled Iraqi city of Mosul as attempts to retake the city get underway. 

Most analysts expect the complex operation could last months - and aid agencies say they are completely under equipped to deal with the unfolding humanitarian crisis despite the fact the advance has been planned for since February. 

A senior UN official said on Monday he is “extremely concerned” for the safety of families who are at risk of being caught in crossfire or used as human shields. Isis has reportedly built concrete blast walls to seal off parts of the city, effectively concentrating the city’s residents into areas where their presence can be used to dissuade the approaching Iraqi troops from using force. 

Residents have been told to put white flags up on the roofs of their homes to keep them safe, Ruairidh Villar of Save the Children said, but in past battles Isis have used civilian houses as cover. Iraqi and US officials both said that Isis fighters have been shaving off their beards in order to blend in with the civilian population in recent weeks.

“Whether families and children stay or they flee, right now it's an impossible decision,” Mr Villar said in a statement. 

Leaflets dropped on the city and radio addresses by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned citizens to stay home and away from fighting units rather than attempt to leave the city. 

Despite the appeals, UN OCHA, the agency’s humanitarian wing, is expecting around 200,000 people to flee in the first few days of fighting, but warns the figure could be as high as 700,000. 

One million people in total could be in need of emergency assistance - and aid groups are only currently ready to deal with approximately 100,000 displaced people thanks to a huge funding shortfall. 

While military planners promised that details of planned safe routes out of Mosul to nearby displacement camps would be provided, several international agencies have raised concerns that the military seems more intent in locking the city down to prevent anyone from leaving.  

When the Iraqi army liberated Fallujah from Isis in June, providing humanitarian assistance details via the radio too early complicated the assault, alerting jihadis as to where civilians would attempt to flee. 

Assault on Mosul gathers pace

“What we’re hearing is that the nature of the operation now has fundamentally changed and what the military is speaking about now is an operation in which the local population would be sealed in, so to speak,” Belkis Wille, an Iraqi researcher with Human Rights Watch, told VOA.

Isis is well prepared for the impending assault: it has dug extensive tunnel networks as well as two metre by two metre trenches which are to be filled with burning oil. Bridges and roads have also been rigged with bombs to complicate the Iraqi army’s movements. 

Reports were emerging on Monday that civilians in Mosul have lauched their own armed rebellion against the jihadists, setting fire to Isis' vehicles and headquarter buildings and stealing weapons.