As many as one million people could flee Mosul in northern Iraq if the Iraqi army, backed by US air strikes, seeks to recapture the city later this year, aid agencies have told The Independent on Sunday. And those agencies are preparing by building up stocks of food at sites around Mosul to feed those forced into a mass exodus.
“We would expect hundreds of thousands of people from Mosul to leave, if not more,” says Marwa Awad, speaking on behalf of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Irbil, the Kurdish capital, 50 miles east of Mosul. She added that the numbers fleeing an impending battle for Mosul in the course of the next few months could total a million. The present population of the city, captured by Islamic State (Isis) on 10 June last year, is believed to be about 1.5 million, the great majority of them Sunni Arabs.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has also issued a statement warning of a mass flight from Mosul, although without giving an estimate of the number likely to be affected. “The broadening of the conflict to populated areas along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers will create more humanitarian needs,” the ICRC warns. “If major cities such as Mosul come under fire again, thousands more people will have to flee.”
Syed Jaffer Hussain, the World Health Organisation’s representative in Iraq, also says that an attempt to recapture Mosul could lead to hundreds of thousands seeking refuge in Kurdistan. The exodus could begin as soon as Isis becomes unable to stop people leaving Mosul, and the US increases the number of its air strikes.
Scepticism has been expressed about the ability of the Iraqi army to recapture the city, but even the beginning of an attempt to do so might lead to a mass flight. The US Central Command said earlier this month that an offensive to retake the city would start in April or May and would involve up to 25,000 Iraqi soldiers, although the exact date would depend on their degree of combat readiness.
The WFP said it would have “to pre-position stocks of food, which we are doing now”. These stockpiles will be held in the three main cities of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) – Irbil, Duhok and Sulaimaniyah – and also in Kirkuk which is under Kurdish control but outside the KRG.
In pictures: Global refugee crisis
In pictures: Global refugee crisis
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Yemeni refugees carry water to their tent at the Mazraq internally displaced people's camp in the northwestern province of Hajja
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A displaced man from Yemen's Saada province amid UNHCR tents at a camp set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Mazraq in Yemen's Hajja region, 360 kms northwest of Sanaa
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Yemeni refugees queue to get food aid at the Marzaq internally displaced people's camp in Harad in the northwestern province of Hajjah
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Displaced Yemenis from al-Jaachan Al-Ansin, a village in the province of Ibb, some 200km South-East of Sanaa, stand next to their tents in a makeshift refugee camp in Sanaa
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Yemeni refugees walk to a refugee camp in the southern Saudi province of Jizan after crossing the border from Yemen into Saudi Arabia
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Syrian refugees arrive in Turkey at the Cilvegozu crossing gate of Reyhanli, in Hatay. The number of people driven from their homes by conflict and crisis has topped 50 million for the first time since World War II, with Syrians hardest hit, the UN refugee agency (UNCHR) said, in an annual report released on World Refugee Day
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Syrian refugees walking among tents at Karkamis' refugee camp near the town of Gaziantep, south of Turkey
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South Sudanese refugees waiting for food in the Kule refugee camp near the Pagak Border Entry point in the Gambella Region, Ethiopia
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African refugees live homelessly at a temporary shelter beside a road on World Refugee Day in Sana'a, Yemen. The number of African refugees who have come to Yemen during the past few years has reached 750,000, most of them are Somalis
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An Iraqi refugee girl from Mosul stands outside her family's tent at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq. The militants' capture of Iraq's cities of Mosul and Tikrit makes their dream of a new Islamic state look more realistic. It already controlled a swath of eastern Syria along the Euphrates River, with a spottier presence extending further west nearly to Aleppo, Syria's largest city. In Raqqa, the biggest city it holds in Syria, it imposes taxes, rebuilds bridges and enforces the law - its strict version of Shariah
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Refugees queue to register at a temporary camp in northern Iraq
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A young Syrian refugee stands near jerry cans used to collect water at Al-Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria. The United Nations hopes that political talks between the warring sides in Syria will clinch local ceasefires to allow vital food and medicines to reach millions of civilians
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A child refugee from the northern province of Raqqa in Syria, reacts from the cold weather in a Syrian refugee camp beside the Lebanese border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa Valley
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Boys help their father remove snow in front of their tent in the Azaz refugee camp
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A Syrian refugee family from Aleppo crosses the Bosphorus from Uskudar to the European side of Istanbul
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A child refugee stands next to a home constructed using a billboard in the settlement of Qab Elias in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
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Refugee baby Rim in the settlement of Qab Elias in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
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Refugees arriving at a camp near Bossangoa, 190 miles north of Bangui, the capital. Forty-one thousand people fled their homes following mass executions in the area
Juan Carlos Tomasi/Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders
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Representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a deeply divided opposition, world powers and regional bodies started a long-delayed peace conference aimed at bringing an end to a nearly three-year civil war
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A women and a girl wash at a tap at a temporary displacement camp set up next to a Kurdish checkpoint in Kalak. Thousands of people have fled Iraq's second city of Mosul after it was overrun by Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) militants. Many have been temporarily housed at various IDP (internally displaced persons) camps around the region including the area close to Erbil, as they hope to enter the safety of the nearby Kurdish region
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Families arrive at a Kurdish checkpoint next to a temporary displacement camp in Kalak
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An Iraqi refugee girl from Mosul stands outside her family's tent at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq. Days after Iraq's second-largest city fell to Isis fighters, some Iraqis are already returning to Mosul, lured back by insurgents offering cheap gas and food, restoring power and water and removing traffic barricades
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A girl, who fled from the violence in Mosul, carries a case of water at a camp on the outskirts of Arbil in Iraq's Kurdistan region
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A displaced Iraqi woman washes her family's laundry as the children shower outside their tent at a temporary camp set up to shelter civilians fleeing violence in Iraq's northern Nineveh province in Aski kalak, 40 kms west of the Kurdish autonomous region's capital Arbil
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Iraqi refugees from Mosul arrive at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad
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The international Red Cross said that the road from Bor to the nearby Awerial area 'is lined with thousands of people' waiting for boats so they could cross the Nile River and that the gathering of displaced 'is the largest single identified concentration of displaced people in the country so far'
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People unload the few belongings at Minkammen, that they were able to bring with them to the camps
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Thousands of exhausted civilians are crowding into the fishing village of Minkammen, a once-tiny riverbank settlement of a few thatch huts 25 kilometres (20 miles) southwest of Bor
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Many people had spent days hiding out in the bush outside Bor as gunmen battled for control of the town, which has exchanged hands three times in the conflict, and remains in rebel control
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A young boy pulls his suitcase of belongings as he walks to find a place to rest after getting off a river barge from Bor
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A displaced family camp under a tree providing partial shade from the midday sun
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A boy carries a fish, caught from the nearby Nile river, in a cardboard box on his head back to his relatives to eat
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A mother and her baby, one of the few to have a mosquito net, wake up in the morning after sleeping in the open
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Four-month old Haida Majzub was born in the Ajuong Thok refugee camp inside South Sudan. The camp, in northern Unity State, hosts thousands of refugees from the Nuba Mountains, located across the nearby border with Sudan
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A girl fills a container with muddy water in the Ajuong Thok Refugee Camp
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The clashes in South Sudan began when uniformed personnel opened fire at a meeting of the governing party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement
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45 year old Dilbhar looks towards the camera as she stands in the Shamalapur Rohingya refugee settlement in Chittagong district. She escaped to Bangladesh from the Bodchara village in the Mondu district of Myanmar
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32 year old Mahada Khatum, 5 year old Hasan Sharif, and 9 year old Umma Kulsum sit outside their home in the Shamalapur Rohingya refugee settlement in Chittagong district. The family escaped violence and discrimination from the Zomgara Baharchara village in the Meherulla district of Myanmar
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Hamid and his daughter Rajama sit inside their home in the Shamalapur Rohingya refugee settlement in Chittagong district. They fled to Bangladesh from the Dhuachopara village in the Rachidhong district of Myanmar
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Afghan children wait for relief supplies from the Muslim Hands United For The Needy during an aid distribution at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul
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Afghan people carry relief supplies received from the Muslim Hands United For The Needy during an aid distribution at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul
One problem is that Sunni Arabs from Mosul are currently banned from entering the KRG, which has already given refuge to 1.4 million people displaced by fighting in Iraq and Syria. Aid agencies are hopeful that, in the event of an exodus from Mosul, the KRG authorities will change their mind and let them into its territory. If they do not, those in flight from Mosul would probably head for Kirkuk. Before an expected IS drive towards Kirkuk at the end of January, one road was opened between it and Mosul. The WFP is already feeding 80,000 people in the Kirkuk area.
The Sunni Arab population of Mosul has strong motives for trying to escape any battle for their city. The Shia-dominated Iraqi army held Mosul for 10 years up until 2014, during which time they acted very much as a foreign occupation force widely resented by Sunnis. The Isis victory and the Iraqi army’s disintegration was widely welcomed by them.
They are also fearful that the notoriously sectarian Shia militia forces, which number some 120,000 men, would be involved in any assault on Mosul. Where they have captured Sunni towns and villages around Baghdad in the past, they have treated all those who have not fled as Isis sympathisers, regardless of their actual allegiance, if any. Young Sunni men have been detained, tortured, held for ransom or killed. Sunni residents of Mosul suspect that the same thing could happen to them.
Even if Mosul did not fall to the Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga or other anti-Isis forces, an attempt to capture it would involve heavy US air strikes. During the four-month siege of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, much of the city was destroyed by US bombs aimed at Isis militants. Aside from civilian casualties, an air assault would further reduce Mosul’s already limited supplies of electricity, fuel and clean water. Many people are in hospital suffering from intestinal illnesses brought about by drinking dirty water.
The WFP’s Marwa Awad said any exodus from Mosul would be the latest in a series that has uprooted 2.2 million people from their homes since January 2014. It was in that month that Isis captured the city of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, and began a long struggle with the Iraqi army for the vast Sunni Arab province of Anbar that sprawls across the western third of Iraq. The jihadis now hold 85 per cent of the province.
It was this war in Anbar, in the first half of 2014, that provoked the first wave of 450,000 refugees seeking safety elsewhere in Iraq. In June, the capture by Isis of Mosul and much of northern Iraq outside Kurdish-held areas created a further 500,000 refugees. An Isis offensive directed against the Kurds in August displaced another 600,000, many of them Yazidis from Sinjar, west of Mosul, who were terrified by the threat of massacre, rape and slavery.
Christians, who had been forced out of Mosul city in June and July, saw their towns and villages in the Nineveh Plain around Mosul seized, forcing them to flee into Kurdistan. Since August, a further 650,000 have been displaced by fighting, mostly in the provinces around Baghdad.
It is extremely unlikely that Isis would give up Mosul without a fight to the death, because it was the city’s unexpected capture by the extreme jihadi movement last year that enabled it to proclaim the caliphate on 29 June. Its loss would constitute a devastating blow to its prestige and sense that its victories are divinely inspired. Even at Kobani, where Isis forces were in a poor tactical positions battling Syrian Kurdish fighters known for their determination and discipline, Isis was able to hold on for three months despite presenting an ideal target for 700 US air strikes.
While all Iraqi communities have been forced to flee at one time or another, the Sunni have nowhere safe to go to. Iraqi government and US policy since last June had been to divide the Sunni community and turn part of it against Isis, as the US succeeded in doing in 2006-07. But Isis mercilessly punishes any Sunni whom it suspects of working with its opponents. As a result there have been very few signs of overt resistance to Isis in Mosul or elsewhere in Isis-occupied territory. One Kurdish observer, who did not want to be named, said: “We don’t see daily assassinations and bombings which used to happen when the Americans and later the Iraqi army were running Mosul. Sunni leaders outside the city exaggerate or even invent their support.”
The savagery of the sectarian and ethnic conflict in Iraq is now such that no community feels safe under the rule of another, preferring to take to the roads in a bid to survive.