The Iraqi air force dropped leaflets yesterday urging residents in the Daesh-held Old City centre of Mosul to flee, raising fears among humanitarian groups for the safety of desperate civilians there.
The leaflet drop, announced in an Iraqi military statement, signalled that the decisive offensive to dislodge the militants from their remaining enclave in the northern Iraqi city was imminent.
The US and Iran-backed offensive on Mosul, now in its eighth month, has taken longer than planned as the militants are entrenched, fighting back with booby traps, suicide cars and motor-bikes, snipers and mortar fire.
It has also been a campaign marked by brutality and atrocities committed by Mosul’s would-be saviours, including units from the Iraqi army, special police units and sectarian Shia jihadist groups fighting under the banner of the state-sanctioned but Iran-controlled Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). Iraqi forces have been documented perpetrating torture, abductions, rape and murder.
Civilians trapped behind Daesh lines also face a harrowing situation with little food and water, no electricity and limited access to hospitals.
“Iraqi air force planes dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets a short while ago on the non-liberated areas…urging citizens to exit through safe corridors,” an Iraqi military statement said.
A resident in Farouq, an Old City neighbourhood, sounded desperate in a telephone interview:
We’re waiting for death at any moment, either by bombing or starving…Adults eat one meal a day, either flour or lentil soup.
Dire humanitarian conditions
The humanitarian group Oxfam said the leaflets suggested that the Iraqi forces’ move on the Old City in Mosul “is imminent…This could involve an official announcement from the military in the coming days.”
Save the Children, another aid organisation, released a statement saying:
Save the Children is deeply concerned that any calls to leave west Mosul will mean that civilians, particularly children, are in significant danger of being caught in the crossfire.
The militants have laid sheets of corrugated metal over pebbles in the alleys as an early warning system, residents said. The grinding noise produced by treading on it would alert them to any troop movements or civilians trying to escape.
The United Nations last week said up to 200,000 more people could flee Mosul as fighting moves to the Old City.
Residents said millet, usually used as bird feed, is being baked like rice as food prices increased by ten folds. People were seen collecting wild mallow plants in abandoned lots and also eating mulberry leaves and other types of plants.
About 700,000, about a third of the pre-war city’s population, have already fled, seeking refuge either in sprawling refugee camps with unsanitary conditions, or with friends and relatives if they are fortunate.
Iraqi forces under Iranian control
Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi had initially hoped Mosul would be retaken by the end of 2016, but has since repeatedly failed to retake the city despite numerous promises and self-imposed deadlines.
Iraqi military commanders had expressed hope of taking control of the Old City’s Grand Al-Nuri Mosque, from which Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declared the “caliphate”, before the fasting month of Ramadan, which started today. However, they have failed in their attempts.
The insurgency is expected to continue in the sparsely populated desert region along the Syrian border even if Mosul is fully captured.
Iranian-backed Shia paramilitary forces are fighting Daesh in the part of the country where Al-Baghdadi is believed to be hiding, according to US and Iraqi officials.
The Iraqi Shia jihadist paramilitary PMF force is theoretically under Al-Abadi’s command, but instead take their orders from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
On Friday, the PMF announced it had captured the Sinjar military base, cutting the road between two cities that remain under Daesh control west of Mosul, Tal Afar and Ba’aj, and getting closer to the Syrian border.
Iraq’s Shia-led government is aiming to control the border in coordination with the Iranian-backed regime army of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Taking Ba’aj is part of an Iranian plan to create a land route from Iran to the Syrian Mediterranean coast at Latakia.
Linking up the two sides of the border would also give Iran-backed Al-Assad a significant advantage in fighting the six-year rebellion against his dictatorial rule.