ON Saturday the 18th of February, the Iraqi Defence Ministry said it had dropped millions of leaflets on western Mosul, informing the population of an imminent assault against Da’esh (Isis) by state and other security forces. Around 3,000 Da’esh fighters are holed up in western Mosul, the last Iraqi stronghold of the self proclaimed Islamic State. However, at least 650,000 civilians, who have been living under the militants’ brutal control since they occupied Mosul in 2014, also remain in the western part of the city.
Shortly after the Ministry’s announcement, as the sun rose over Mosul, 30,000 Iraqi police and military combatants, combined with various other armed groups, launched their latest offensive. Hundreds of military vehicles travelled across the desert into urban areas, all while plumes of smoke rose from the city as US airstrikes supported the advancing personnel. After just a few hours, and with some ease, the army said it had captured at least 11 villages to the south, positioning itself within striking distance from Mosul airport. Overall, there are 100,000 combatants taking part in the attack; consisting of Iraqi state armed forces, regional Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Iranian-trained Shi’a Muslim paramilitary groups.
Last Thursday, national police and military forces had taken the airport after a brief but intense battle. Brigadier General Abbas al-Juburi of the special forces unit which spearheaded the assault, proudly claimed that; “I can confirm that the airport is fully liberated”. Again, as has been a trend with Iraqi military operations, US jets and drones provided air support, hitting strategic ground targets. The airport offers the predominantly Shi’a forces a good platform from which to launch the rest of their offensive into western Mosul, and they have not wasted any time in doing so.
Overall, there are 100,000 combatants taking part in the attack.
Just ten days after the offensive began, on February 28th, the US-backed forces had moved to within firing range of Mosul’s main government buildings. Terrified citizens fled from the fighting, some running towards government lines while under militant fire, others moving further into the city centre, where food and water supplies are already scarce. In an attempt to hide their movements from air surveillance, militants set homes and cars ablaze.
On Wednesday, state forces seized the last major road out of western Mosul. The road connected Mosul with Tal Afar, another Da’esh stronghold 60km to the west. The move puts a stranglehold on the western half of the city, and will prevent Da’esh from coming in or out. In reaction to this, and in the early hours of this morning, Thursday March 3rd, Da’esh launched a counter-attack during bad weather. According to a senior officer, the militants were able to get near Iraqi forces in the southwestern part of the city, hidden amongst those displaced by the fighting. However, despite the desperate attempt by Da’esh to break the government’s hold on the city’s outskirts, state forces were able to fend off the attack.
It is thought that most of the militants have retreated further back into their territory, to the urban centre. At that centre, after making their way through a web of booby-traps and ambush points, Iraqi forces are expected to clash with Da’esh’s elite fighting units. In January, following three hard months of fighting, government troops wrestled “full control” of eastern Mosul from Da’esh, reaching the Tigris river which bisects the city. The current military push will be no different and is expected to take just as long, if not longer. The fighting will be more vicious too. Western Mosul is the oldest part of the city and is comprised of narrow, winding streets that will prevent access to armoured vehicles. As a result, we’re likely to see house-to-house fighting and high casualty numbers.
A New Hell Beckons for the People
Regarding the leaflets that were dropped on the city, the Defense Ministry said that they “contained instructions for the citizens to get ready to welcome the Iraqi forces that are coming to liberate their areas, and to warn the Da’esh members to lay down their weapons and surrender”. The ministry can drop all the leaflets it wants, but it will still encounter the many problems which it fears it may. Those fears are derived from the knowledge that many civilians in western Mosul are suspected of being ideologically sympathetic to Da’esh, and supportive of its rule. In the same vein, Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haidar al-Abadi, in announcing the beginning of the assault on Mosul, stated that he asked the Iraqi armed forces to respect human rights during the battle and to be cautious not to harm those displaced by the fighting.
The government are trying to project an image of a military which respects its human rights obligations, even in the heat of battle. Nevertheless, despite its propagandistic efforts, there is a visible dissonance between the rhetoric of the government on human rights and the actions of the army and its allied militias. Not long after the push on western Mosul began, video emerged showing men in federal police uniforms beating and torturing individuals, as well as carrying out killings. But this is nothing new. Iraqi military and police personnel have a horrific track record on human rights, especially towards the Sunni community. This is only made worse with the inclusion of Shi’a paramilitary groups and the Kurdish peshmerga.
Since late 2014, Amnesty International have documented extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings carried out by Iraqi forces and allied armed groups. Just in October last year, during the offensive on eastern Mosul, researchers gathered evidence which showed that at least six people were tortured and eventually shot in the back of their heads by the military, due to suspicions they had ties to Da’esh. Iraqi forces have also detained thousands of men and boys, some as young as 15, in ‘counter-terrorism centres’, imprisoning them in horrendous conditions.
Iraqi military and police personnel have a horrific track record on human rights.
Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, gained access to a ‘counter-terrorism agency’ (Mukafahat al-Irhab) in Ameriyat al-Fallujah as part of a larger delegation. “The detainees are squeezed into a space of less than one square metre each, sitting in a crouching position day and night, unable to stretch or lie down to sleep and are rarely allowed outside for fresh air”, said Shetty after visiting the detention facilities. “It was a truly shocking sight – hundreds of human beings packed together like sardines in a tin and held in inhumane and degrading conditions for months on end.” The detainees are either plucked off the streets or taken from their homes when Iraqi military forces recapture their towns, being suspected of having collaborated with Da’esh and often merely because they remained in the areas that came under the militant’s rule.
Displaced persons lucky enough not to end up in the counter-terrorism facilities still face considerable hardship at the hands of the government and pro-government forces. Internal refugee camps have been established by the government and the Kurds alike. However, none of the camps housing Mosul’s displaced persons allow any freedom of movement and they keep families separate, confiscate mobile phones and prevent communication. For those in the camps, desperation grows as they are refused any information on, or contact with, their male relatives detained by the military. Many speak of their feeling that they are themselves being held in open air prisons.
A significant religious divide between the ‘liberators’ and those being ‘liberated’ seems to be a factor in the human rights abuses that we’ve seen committed by the military to date. For the army, many of those who they ‘liberate’ from Da’esh control are seen as ‘the other’. Armoured vehicles, previously used by the US and repainted black by elite Iraqi military units, display flags which read ‘For you Hussein’, referring to the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn ibn Ali; a Shi’ite Imam killed in the battle of Karbala in 680 AD. The martyrdom of Imam Husayn is commemorated by millions of Shi’a muslims each year, and Karbala, a city in central Iraq, is as holy a city for Shias as Mecca or Medina. This indicates that the assault may be seen by units in the military, and those in their supporting militias, as some kind of revenge against Sunni Muslims and their perceived support of Da’esh.
The civilians of western Mosul therefore, cannot hold out for much hope that things will get better. When the military push further into the old quarter of the city, heavy fighting will likely result in large civilian casualties. For the men that merely survive or escape Da’esh’s hellish control, two divergent paths open up. The first is the possibility of being tortured and executed by government forces. The second is that they’ll be imprisoned in cramped, inhumane conditions with no knowledge of where their family is or when they’ll be freed. Likewise, their families will end up in displaced persons camps that deny them their liberty and stop them from reuniting with loved ones.
It is vitally important that we judge the Iraqi military not by the speed with which they take back Da’esh territory, but on how well they protect civilians and treat captured combatants. There must not be any impunity for those who violate basic human rights. Should the government not act in accordance with its international obligations, it can expect a long road of resentment from Sunni Muslims. To continue on the current path would be to continue tearing the country further apart, leaving it with little hope of recovery. For now however, those caught in Da’esh’s grips are likely to transition, upon their ‘liberation’, from one hell to another.