Kurds Braced for Civilian Exodus as Iraqi Forces Close in on Mosul

Mizar Mohammed\'s assailants were soldiers from the Iraqi Security Forces - the very people who are supposed to protect him.

Published: 03rd April 2016 01:11 PM  |   Last Updated: 03rd April 2016 01:11 PM   |  A+A-


MAKHMOUR: The 74-year-old man was detained, blindfolded and taken to an isolated house before being beaten.

Mizar Mohammed's assailants were soldiers from the Iraqi Security Forces - the very people who are supposed to protect him.

His only apparent crime in the eyes of these Shia soldiers was being a Sunni from an area that had spent two years under the rule of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).

"The Iraqi forces took my phone and money, they told me they were going to execute me," he remembered.

But Mr Mohammed was able to escape with the help of a sympathetic soldier and travel eastwards to the Kurdish town of Makhmour.

As Iraqi forces advance towards Mosul, the largest city under Isil's rule, thousands of people are already fleeing what is expected to become the biggest operation since the start of the counter-offensive against the terrorist movement.

Mr Mohammed joined the almost 2,000 people who have arrived in Makhmour from the area around Mosul, some 60 miles away.

When Iraqi forces try to recapture the city itself, this trickle of displaced people is expected to become a flood.

The United Nations is preparing for as many as one million people to flee - about two thirds of Mosul's total population.

"As we look at the likely scenario facing us in the coming months, we know we don't have the capacity or the funding to deal with this.

"We are deeply worried," said Lise Grande, the UN's humanitarian coordinator for Iraq.

"If the destruction is extensive, people who have been displaced won't be able to return to their homes for months, if not longer."

The first step along the Iraqi army's road to Mosul took place on March 24 when soldiers, backed by coalition air strikes, recaptured a handful of villages east of the Tigris.

They are now pushing westwards towards the Isil-controlled town of Qayyarah.

The current advance alone is likely to prompt 100,000 people to flee, according to UN estimates.

They are expected to enter the autonomous Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq.

But this area is already coping with a million fugitives from elsewhere in Iraq, along with a further 250,000 Syrian refugees.

The total number of displaced people already approaches 30 per cent of the Kurdistan Region's resident population of 4.5 million - the highest such proportion in the world.

At a time when the Kurdistan Regional government is short of money, it is unlikely to open its doors to even more displaced people when the Mosul offensive begins in earnest.

The government is, however, allowing them to enter Kurdish-controlled disputed areas such as Makhmour, which lies outside the official boundaries of the Kurdistan Region.

The refugees now live inside a youth centre in Makhmour, where men, women and children sit on thin mattresses.

"We heard that we would be killed either by Isil or the shelling, so we left everything we had," explained a mother of four, who asked not to be named.

A young man accused the Kurdistan government of encouraging civilians to flee without being ready to receive them. "We heard [the government] saying that the humanitarian preparations were complete, we were shocked when we arrived," he said.

In a conflict where time is of the utmost importance, the UN has yet to decide if building a new camp is the best way to help the newly displaced.

The Kurdistan authorities must also consider the security risk that comes with a mass influx of people from Isil-held areas.

Civilians are screened and interrogated, explained Brigadier Mahdi Younes, the commander of the local Peshmerga forces, with the focus being on the men.

The husband of 26-year-old Sara Omar, for example, was escorted away by security forces on arrival.

"They took him away because they suspect him of having links to Isil," she explained.

"We've no plan for the future, both of our houses were destroyed," added the mother of two. "My father is an old man and he doesn't even have a mattress to sleep on."

One Peshmerga soldier was adamant that Isil members and sympathisers were hiding among the civilians. "We found a doctor who was Isil," he said matter-of-factly.

Hours later, a suicide bomber from Isil territory penetrated the Peshmerga front line and targeted the police headquarters inside Makhmour, killing three policemen.

For some, even Isil's tyrannical rule is less unsettling than the presence of Iraq's largely Shia security forces.

"The ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] beat us and laughed at us," said Mohammed Khalaf, 21, recounting the day that his hometown was liberated from Isil.

Brigadier Younes acknowledged the problem. "Before, the civilians were escaping Isil," he said.

"Now they're escaping Isil and the Iraqi forces.

"They have a bad reputation - they mistreat people and deal with everyone as though they are terrorists."


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