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Iraqi military urges Mosul residents living in areas under Islamic State control to flee

A boy rides a bicycle in west Mosul's Saha neighborhood on May 29, 2017, as smokes billows during ongoing battles between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants.
A boy rides a bicycle in west Mosul’s Saha neighborhood on May 29, 2017, as smokes billows during ongoing battles between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants.
(Karim Sahib / AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi officials coordinating the Mosul offensive against Islamic State extremists that began in October have reversed themselves after urging residents to shelter in place, and are telling them to flee.

Prime Minister Haider Abadi had hoped Mosul would be recaptured by the end of last year, but Iraqi forces slowed once they reached the densely packed west side.

In a push last week before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan started, government forces failed to seize the Grand Nuri mosque where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi declared the caliphate three years ago.

The Iraqi military said in a statement that it dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets on areas still under Islamic State control “urging citizens to exit through safe corridors.”

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The leaflets fell in west Mosul’s Old City, one of the last Islamic State strongholds, prompting more concern among humanitarian groups about the safety of tens of thousands of civilians.

The city of Mosul was among the places seized by the extremists in 2014, and the offensive to retake the city began Oct. 17. Before the offensive began, Iraqi officials had dropped leaflets and aired television advisories urging residents to stay home rather than flee.

Militants have used civilians in the city as human shields, zooming between houses on motorbikes, forcing their way into homes and shooting at U.S.-led coalition planes from roofs to trigger airstrikes.

“The people of Mosul have already suffered enough. The government of Iraq needs to urgently establish genuinely safe routes so people can escape the fighting and get to the shelter and help they need,” Andres Gonzalez, Oxfam’s country director in Iraq, said in a statement Monday.

“Families currently face a terrible choice, between staying in ISIS controlled areas where many have reportedly suffered extreme violence and food shortages, or risking explosive devices and bullets to escape the fighting,” Gonzalez said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Officials at Save the Children, another aid group in Iraq, also released a statement saying they are “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.”

About 700,000 people have already fled Mosul, once Iraq’s second-largest city with a population of 1.2 million. Many have returned to the east side of the Tigris River that bisects the city, but portions of the west remain under siege. Up to 200,000 more people could flee as fighting moves to the Old City, U.N. officials said last week.

Abu Abdulla lives near Nuri mosque in the Old City, and has been trying to protect his four children. Militants have threatened to kill anyone using cellphones. In an interview Monday, Abu Abdulla, 35, spoke softly, scared, his voice tired.

His family has been fasting for Ramadan, subsisting on staples that have become rare and expensive: lentil soup and bread washed down with water.

“The army is still far from us,” he said, more than a mile away. “We are dying of hunger: No food, no drinkable water and the water that we are drinking is from wells and it is not clean. We are getting sick.”

He had not heard about government leaflets ordering residents to evacuate.

“No one dropped leaflets,” he said. “People are dying from airstrikes and mortars. Many houses and infrastructure have been destroyed completely. We need them to free us as soon as possible. If they don’t, many people will die of hunger.”

Abu Abdulla begged for help from military commanders and the international community.

“We are tired of our life. It is unbearable here,” he said. “People want to be freed as soon as possible.

Times staff writer Hennessy-Fiske reported from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and special correspondent Resol from Sulaymaniyah, Iraq.


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