The Mosul region has suffered the highest number of civilian casualties among Iraq’s provinces in February, according to new UN estimates, as the US-backed coalition tightens its grip on densely populated western neighborhoods of the ISIS-held city.
A total of 329 civilians were killed and 613 injured across Iraq in February, in “acts of terrorism, violence, and armed conflict,” according to new figures by UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI).
The Iraqi military operation to retake Mosul from Islamic State [IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL] and its desperate attempts to hold ground apparently caused a serious surge in civilian casualties.
Ninewa Governorate, with its capital city of Mosul, has suffered the most with 201 civilians killed and another 250 injured.
UNAMI, however, has been “hindered in effectively verifying casualties in conflict areas,” thus the conflict’s civilian death toll might be even higher.
Iraqi civilians suffer both from US-led coalition airstrikes and IS terrorists, who deliberately target fleeing civilians to prevent them from escaping in order to use them as human shields against advancing Iraqi forces.
“We have suffered from many shellings, so many shellings.
The shellings were from the morning till the evenings, deadly shellings.
We were not able to leave our houses because of them,” a recently displaced Iraqi woman Sakna Younis said.
“As the Iraqi security forces stepped up the military operations to liberate the remaining parts of Mosul from Daesh control, the terrorists struck again, targeting civilians with cowardly bombings to ease the pressure on the frontlines,” Jan Kubis, the UN Secretary General's Special Representative for Iraq said.
Such “sinister attempts” of the terrorists did not “weaken the resolve of the people and government of Iraq” to liberate Mosul, Kubis added.
Relentless fighting and further advances into densely populated neighborhoods of western Mosul may result in even more civilian casualties.
“We expect very tough fighting as the Iraqis move deeper into the dense urban terrain of west Mosul,” Operation Inherent Resolve commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said.
While the Mosul offensive somewhat resembles the operation to liberate Syria's Aleppo from terrorists, the approach of armies fighting jihadists and media coverage of the battles in the two neighboring countries is strikingly different, former US diplomat Jim Jatras said.
“There’s no nice, no neat way for an army to battle its way into a heavily populated area, where there’re hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Some of whom might be sympathetic to the terrorists who are holding the city, to Daesh and some who are clearly not, who are oppressed by the rule of Daesh,” Jatras said.
“And that is strikingly similar to what we saw a few weeks ago, when the Syrian Army fought its way into East Aleppo, except on a much much more larger scale, with a much more horrendous possible consequences for the civilians there.”
“I noticed one thing that we have not seen … is what we saw in Aleppo, where the attacking forces, in the case of Aleppo Syrian and Russian-backed forces and in the case Iraqi with American backing have left humanitarian corridors for the civilians to escape,” Jatras added.
Civilians who manage to flee the city are forced to walk many kilometers and sleep in the bare desert, they arrive to emergency cites “exhausted and dehydrated,” according to a United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) report.
Even if they manage to reach emergency camps and shelters, not all are guaranteed the much needed help in time, reportedly due to a lack of trained personnel and lengthy screenings by the Iraqi security forces, which are trying to prevent possible IS-members infiltration.
“We have been here [in Al Dargazlia refugee camp] for two days; we came very hungry from there and we are still hungry here.
There is no food and my baby is sick. I take her to the camp's hospital, but they are not able to cure my child,” Younis said.
“I tell them to transfer me to Shekhan and they did not allow it, I told them my baby is dying and even though they won't accept this, and till now she is sick.
She does not eat anything, they did not supply us with any food to feed my child.”
OCHA promised to improve the desperate humanitarian situation, distributing 30-day food rations among the newly arrived refugees.
Approximately 4,000 civilians have been fleeing western Mosul daily since Iraqi forces began the operation to retake the IS-held parts of the city on February 19, UN Secretary-General spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Wednesday.
As of February 28, some 16,500 people have been displaced, and only 8,800 of them have so far been distributed among camps and emergency sites, according to OCHA.
A further 85,000 people can be housed within prepared emergency camps and shelters, while some 400,000 civilians can flee the battle zone as the offensive continues, according to UN estimates, while roughly 750,000 people remain trapped in war-torn western Mosul.