The battle for Mosul: How to free 1 million residents without killing them
A firefighter works to extinguish an oil well set ablaze by fleeing Islamic State fighters in Qayyarah, Iraq, on Nov. 9.(Chris McGrath / Getty Images)
A peshmerga fighter peers through curtains as he and other Kurdish soldiers move into a new house in Bashiqa, Iraq, on Nov. 9.(Odd Andersen / AFP/Getty Images)
A peshmerga fighter looks for militants as he and his team move between buildings in Bashiqa.(Odd Andersen / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi forces react as they watch Donald Trump give a speech after winning the U.S. presidential election. They were taking a rest in the village of Arbid on the southern outskirts of Mosul on Nov. 9 during the operation to retake Mosul from Islamic State.(Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi police try to pull a body from a mass grave they discovered in the Hamam Alil area on Nov. 7 after they recaptured the area from Islamic State.(Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
Kurdish peshmerga soldiers fire artillery at Islamic State positions in Bashiqa, Iraq, on Nov. 7.(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)
Iraqi forces patrol the Gogjali district of Mosul a day after it was liberated from Islamic State.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Families flee Gogjali after the area was liberated.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A girl waves a white flag as she and her family leave Gogjali.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Iraqi special forces continue to clear homes in Gogjali on Nov. 2, 2016, after the area was liberated.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Iraqi special forces Lt. Col Ali Hussein Fadil and his men continue to clear the Gogjali district.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Iraqi troops patrol Gogjali.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Iraqi army soldiers warm themselves near the Qayyarah air base, south of Mosul, on Tuesday.(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)
Displaced people who fled from Islamic State-held territory sit outside a mosque guarded by Iraqi soldiers in Shuwayrah, south of Mosul, on Tuesday.(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)
Members of the Iraqi counter-terrorism service drive near the village of Bazwaya, on the eastern edges of Mosul, tightening the noose as the offensive to retake the Islamic State group stronghold entered its third week on Sunday.(Bulent Kilic / AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service take shelter after a mortar shell hit nearby near the village of Bazwaya, on the eastern edges of Mosul, as they advance towards Iraq’s last remaining Islamic State stronghold on Monday.(Bulent Kilic / AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Section grimaces in pain as he receives medical treatment after clashes on Monday with Islamic State militants near the village of Bazwaya, on the eastern edge of Mosul.(Bulent Kilic / AFP/Getty Images)
A militia fighter prepares to go into battle with his phone and bullets.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Popular mobilization units are helping to clear villages southwest of Mosul, Iraq. On Sunday, they launched mortar rounds a little more than a mile from Islamic State fighters who continued to resist their advance on the city.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Militiamen chant before going into battle alongside Iraqi army forces as they fight against Islamic State near Mosul.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Militiamen near the village of Zarqa stand by as mortars are launched at Islamic State fighters near Mosul.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
The popular mobilization units received the Iraqi government’s blessing to join the battle that could break Islamic State’s grip in the country.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Militias known as popular mobilization units fighting near Mosul are made up mostly of Shiite Muslims.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
In the village of Faziliya, recently liberated from Islamic State, Abdul Gafur, 38, embraces his brother Mohammad Abdul Gafur, 40. The two had not seen each other since Islamic State forces took control of the village more than two years ealier.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Business is brisk at the barbershops in Faziliya after Kurdish forces retook control from Islamic State militants. A bodyguard stands by.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Peshmerga, or Kurdish fighters, rest after a recent battle.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
The remains of a bomb factory can be seen in the village of Faziliya, recently liberated from Islamic State control.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A member of the Iraqi armed forces kisses a local boy after Iraqi forces entered the town of Shura, 30 kilometers south of Mosul, Iraq. Iraqi troops approaching Mosul from the south advanced into Shura on Saturday after a wave of U.S.-led airstrikes and artillery shelling against Islamic State positions inside the town.(Marko Drobnjakovic / AP)
Iraqi families, who already had been displaced by the ongoing operation by Iraqi forces against jihadists of the Islamic State group, flee Mosul. Iraqi paramilitary forces launched an operation to cut the Islamic State group’s supply lines between its Mosul bastion and neighboring Syria.(Bulent Kilic / AFP/Getty Images)
Walid Abdel Nabih, 28, from Nasiriya and a father of four, moves through passageways created by Islamic State to prevent detection by drones. On the eastern front in the fight for Mosul, an Iraqi special forces unit waits for next phase of the fight to clear Islamic State operatives from Mosul.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
An Iraqi special forces member rides in the turret of a humvee with a Shiite religious banner flying behind him as he patrols Bartella, Iraq.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
As many Iraqis are returning home, others are fleeing the fighting in villages surrounding Mosul. At Camp JJadh, 3,000 people arrived in the past week, but many more are expected as the battle for Mosul continues. New arrivals line up for food, provide by the World Food Program.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Children play in a dismantled car in the village of Hurriya, where fighting between Islamic State and Iraqi forces has caused many families to leave over the past months. The risk of unexploded weapons is still a concern for many in the area.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Soldiers drive through the town of Qayyarah, heavily damaged in the fighting in August and again this past week as Islamic State was driven out of town.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Sienna Moqtar and her daughter decorate her brother’s grave with rocks. He died last week in the final days of Islamic State in Qayyarah. The bodies of two infant nephews are buried at the right.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Ibrahim Atea Ahmed, left and Daham Ahmed survived the Islamic State attack, but their town was left in bad shape. Oil fires continue to burn, set by militants as a cover from air attacks.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Residents wait for food and water to be handed out, but very little was distributed. The water is not fit to drink in the town.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Iraqi soldiers head for the front line.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
An Iraqi fighter takes a position on top of a vehicle as smoke rises on the outskirts of the Qayyarah area, 35 miles south of Mosul, during an operation against Islamic State.(BULENT KILIC / AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke billows from an area near the Iraqi town of Nawaran, northeast of Mosul, as Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters march down a dirt road during the ongoing operation to retake the city from Islamic State.(SAFIN HAMED / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces raise an Iraqi flag after retaking Bartella, outside Mosul, Iraq.(Khalid Mohammed / Associated Press)
Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces raise an Iraqi flag after retaking Bartella, outside Mosul, Iraq.(Khalid Mohammed / Associated Press)
The commander of Iraq Special Forces Lt. Gen Abdul Ghani al-Asadi during an interview on the Bartila front line, after the city was liberated from Islamic State militants.(AHMED JALIL / EPA)
Iraqi Special Forces take up position in Bartila front line, after the city was liberated from Islamic State militants.(AHMED JALIL / EPA)
Iraqi soldiers ride in a truck advancing through the desert on the banks of the Tigris River toward the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul.(Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters fire rockets from a mobile launcher near the town of Bashiqa, about 25 kilometers northeast of Mosul, on Oct. 20, 2016.(Safid Hamed / AFP/Getty Images)
A member of Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces advances with his unit toward the city of Mosul, on Oct. 20, 2016.(Khalid Mohammed / Associated Press)
A villager walks on a bare street as smoke from oil fires nearby turn the sky black in the Qayyarah area, about 60 kilometers south of Mosul, on Oct. 19, 2016.(Yasin Akgul / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi soldiers look on as smoke rises from the Qayyarah area south of Mosul on Oct. 19, 2016, as Iraqi forces take part in an operation against Islamic State to retake Mosul.(YASIN AKGUL / AFP/Getty Images)
A man takes a selfie in front of a fire from oil that has been set ablaze in the Qayyarah area south of Mosul on Oct. 19, 2016, during an operation by Iraqi forces against Islamic State to retake Mosul.(YASIN AKGUL / AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi sniper wearing his camouflage in the village of Bajwaniyah village, about 30 kilometers south of Mosul, on Oct. 18, 2016.(Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke rises from an explosion as Iraqi forces retake the village of Bajwaniyah from Islamic State on their way to Mosul.(Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi soldiers inspect a tunnel in a building in the recaptured village of Shaquoli, about 35 kilometers east of Mosul, on Oct. 18, 2016.(Safin Hamed / AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighter stands amid the rubble of a destroyed building on Oct. 18, 2016, in the village of Shaqouli, east of Mosul, after it was recaptured from the Islamic State group.(Safin Hamed / AFP/Getty Images)
A man carries a baby at a refugee camp in Syria’s Hasakeh province for Iraqi families who fled fighting in the Mosul area on Oct. 17, 2016.(Delil Souleiman / AFP/Getty Images)
Lt. Col. Ali Hussein, right, addresses Iraqi security forces leading a government offensive that began Monday to oust Islamic State from the city of Mosul, the extremist group’s last major stronghold in Iraq.(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)
An Iraqi police officer inspects his weapon at the Qayyarah military base, about 60 kilometers south of Mosul, on Oct. 16, 2016, amid preparations for the offensive to retake the city from Islamic State.(Ahmad Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi forces head north toward Mosul on Monday, part of the operation to retake the city from Islamic State.(Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters fire a mortar shell from Mount Zardak.(Safin Hamed / AFP/Getty Images)
Omar Turki defied Islamic State and fled the city of Mosul on foot last month with his family of five, the youngest just 6 months old.
Eager to escape the coming battle to free the city from the militant group’s violent grip, the family had to cross a trench — apparently designed to be filled with oil and set ablaze to foil the would-be liberators — and walk through a minefield.
Now living in a large camp set up by international aid workers 40 miles southeast of Mosul, Turki, 26, has been phoning relatives back home and warning them that, when Iraqi troops arrive for their assault, Islamic State militants will be merciless.
“I told my family when the Iraqi army comes, just go to them so Islamic State don’t use them as human shields,” said Turki.
Turki’s perilous journey is about to be replicated by thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, as a coordinated assault by Iraqi and Kurdish forces begins on Iraq’s second-largest city. Key to any success in reclaiming the city is ensuring the safety of up to 1.2 million civilians, the largest population of any urban battle so far in Iraq’s war against Islamic State.
Military commanders have urged civilians to shelter in their homes while the battle rages. U.S. B-52 bombers have dropped as many as 7 million leaflets around the city instructing civilians to tape over their windows in the shape of an X to keep them from shattering, disconnect gas pipes, hide valuables and stay low near the floor.
“Tell your children that the loud booms are just thunder,” the leaflets advise.
Already, 1,900 people have fled to camps in Iraq and 900 more to similar facilities in Syria, aid workers say. That tally will probably rise to 200,000 in the first two weeks of the offensive, whose initial operations began this week, and could reach 1 million by the time the operation concludes.
The Iraqi government has said safe routes will be set up to help civilians evacuate, but local aid workers say they have not been informed of the plans.
“In Fallujah, there were passages that were said to be safe and they weren’t. We don’t want that to happen,” said Karl Schembri, spokesman for the Norwegian Refugee Council, which is operating in northern Iraq.
Iraqi authorities faced criticism after the offensive over the summer in Fallujah, in western Iraq, for failing to protect, screen and funnel civilians through safe paths to temporary housing.
A dozen men and boys were shot and killed outside Fallujah after surrendering to men who had appeared to be friendly because they were wearing military and federal police uniforms; 73 other men and boys from the same tribe are still missing, according to an Amnesty International report released Tuesday.
In Saqlawiya, near Fallujah, militiamen seized about 1,300 men and youths, then transferred 600 to local officials days later bearing signs of torture, according to the report, based on interviews with more than 470 former detainees, witnesses and relatives of those detained, missing or killed.
“Fallujah has very important lessons that everyone should have learned from,” said Schembri.
“The problem here is that the magnitude of this crisis — the number of people, where they can flee to, where they can go to — is huge,” he said. “We’re talking about 1.2 million people, as opposed to the 84,000 in Fallujah.”
Humanitarian aid workers have no way of knowing whether it’s best to advise Mosul’s residents to stay in their homes or flee — only they can know that, as the battle unfolds, and those who elect to remain could eventually run out of supplies, Schembri said.
“It’s a very bleak dilemma, whether to risk to stay or risk their lives leaving, so there’s nothing to be confident about, [and] the longer this takes, the more desperate their situation will become,” he added.
Prime Minister Haider Abadi said at a briefing that he had not read the Amnesty International report about the problems in Fallujah but that Iraq has “zero tolerance toward human rights violations.”
“The situation in Fallujah wasn’t really functioning, but those lessons have been incorporated, and we trust they will be upheld so that those who choose to flee can do so” from Mosul, he said. “If we do not uphold the protection of civilians, we risk rekindling the issues that brought [Islamic State] here in the first place.”
Another difficulty is how to detect Islamic State fighters among the civilians who flee the city.
Some militant leaders have left Mosul ahead of the Iraqi offensive, but foreign fighters, who might be more easily recognized, appear to be staying, according to Maj. Gen. Gary J. Volesky, commander of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
“They’re not going to be able to exfiltrate as easily as some of the local fighters or the local leadership,” Volesky told reporters on a teleconference call from Baghdad. “It’s difficult for them to blend into the local population.”
In Fallujah, he said, some militants dressed as women to escape. “That didn’t work for them.”
U.N. authorities are establishing 11 camps in the area to house as many as 120,000 people, but officials say they hope they won’t see that many leave Mosul.
“The more civilians will feel protected inside Mosul, the less they will be displaced,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a visit to the Debaga camp this week. “For those who feel they have to go because it is dangerous, also they have to be treated with dignity and respect.”
The camp was built for 20,000 people, but is already housing 31,700, including 655 displaced in the last two days.
There are scores of cinder-block shacks and tents. Newly arrived men sleep in the mosque, women and children in the school. Camp workers try to keep it clean, but the sheer volume of new arrivals – many with young children - has left the floors dirty and strewn with garbage. Rice and beans were served Wednesday, but many people said they were still hungry and thirsty.
“Even in the zoo it’s better than this,” said a man who asked to be identified as Abu Mahmoud, 41.
The father of four, who teaches at a trade school, paid a team of armed smugglers $400 to get his family out of Islamic State-dominated Hawija to the south last week. They survived Islamic State mines and sniper fire, he said, unlike a group of neighbors captured the same day, or a cousin killed by a mine while attempting the same journey two weeks ago.
Thousands more are paying smugglers even steeper prices to flee west from Mosul into Syria.
About 5,000 displaced people have fled from the Mosul area during the last two weeks to the Hol camp in northeast Syria. The camp was built to house 7,500 but currently is holding 10,000, according to Tarik Kadir, Mosul response team leader for the nonprofit Save the Children. He said 3,500 other people displaced from Mosul are waiting to enter at the Syrian border.
Kadir said those fleeing paid smugglers an average of $2,500. “It’s only those who have money who are getting out,” he said.
Inside Mosul, preparations for the coming battle appear to be vigorously underway, according to residents who have fled, many of whom remain in communication with family members inside.
Some Islamic State fighters have been broadcasting a call to arms for an impending holy war, and have moved into churches and mosques, apparently to avoid being targeted by airstrikes, Turki said.
He said residents have been forced to shut off lights and generators at night, also to avoid airstrikes. Those caught with cellphones are killed.
Turki said many residents, including his wife’s family, have tried to move east across the Tigris River, where it might be easier to flee, but housing is scarce. Islamic State fighters recently fanned out across the west side and threatened to kill those caught moving, Turki said. Last month, he said, a smuggler who had helped families move was hanged.
A woman who identified herself only as Um Menhal, interviewed at the Debaga camp, said Islamic State fighters this week were hiding in homes as the offensive advanced, and attempted to use her family and about two dozen others in their village south of Mosul as human shields before they managed to escape.
She said her two brothers, both former police officers, have remained in Mosul and plan to join the fight to liberate the city. But they have only a couple hours of electricity every few days, and have gone days without bread.
Um Iyad, 27, fled Mosul to a nearby village in June, then came to the Debaga camp two months ago with her four sons. She left behind her husband, a driver unwilling to part with a car he wouldn’t be able to drive past Islamic State fighters. He’s now living amid mortar attacks and airstrikes without water, electricity or fuel oil, she said.
Her parents have also remained, stockpiling food. “My mom told us, ‘I won’t flee from here. If I die, I will die in my house,’” she said.
When she last visited her parents and siblings in Mosul three months ago, Islamic State fighters had moved into their neighborhood, holing up in abandoned buildings.
A slight figure in a tattered red gown embroidered with black flowers, Um Iyad was having trouble sleeping, constantly contemplating the fate of her city. Above the black veil that covered her face, her eyes filled with tears.
“I am so worried,” she said.
Times staff writer Hennessy-Fiske reported from Debaga camp and special correspondent Bulos from Irbil, Iraq. Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.
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