Islamic State said to use Mosul residents as human shields

Peshmerga forces advance in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul,

By Ahmed Rasheed and Michael Georgy

BAGHDAD/ERBIL (Reuters) – Residents of Mosul said Islamic State was using civilians as human shields as Iraqi and Kurdish forces captured outlying villages in their advance on the jihadists’ stronghold.

The leader of Islamic State and one of its main explosives experts were reported to be among thousands of the hardline militants still in Mosul, suggesting the group would go to great lengths to fend off any ground attack within the city limits.

With the attacking forces still between 20 and 50 km (12-30 miles) away, residents reached by telephone said more than 100 families had started moving from southern and eastern suburbs most exposed to the offensive to more central parts of the city.

Islamic State militants were preventing people fleeing Mosul, they said, and one said they directed some toward buildings they had recently used themselves.

“It’s quite clear Daesh (Islamic State) has started to use civilians as human shields by allowing families to stay in buildings likely to be targeted by air strikes,” said Abu Mahir, who lives near the city’s university and offered food to the displaced.

Like other residents contacted by telephone in the city, he refused to give his full name, but Abdul Rahman Waggaa, a member of the exiled Provincial Council of Nineveh of which Mosul is the capital, corroborated his account to Reuters, urging government and coalition forces to update their targeting data.

Around 1.5 million people are still living in Mosul and the International Organisation for Migration said it was preparing gas masks in case of chemical attack by the jihadists, who had used such weapons previously against Iraqi Kurdish forces.

The fall of Mosul would signal the defeat of the ultra-hardline Sunni jihadists in Iraq but could also lead to land grabs and sectarian bloodletting between groups which fought one another after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

For U.S. President Barack Obama, the campaign is a calculated risk, with U.S. officials acknowledging that there is no clear plan for how the region around Mosul will be governed once Islamic State is expelled.

Smoke rises from clashes at Bartila in the east of Mosul during clashes with Islamic State militants, Iraq.

Smoke rises from clashes at Bartila in the east of Mosul during clashes with Islamic State militants, Iraq. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani


The Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces from autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan began moving toward the city at dawn on Monday under air cover from a U.S.-led coalition set up after Islamic State swept into Iraq from Syria in 2014.

Hoshiyar Zebari, a senior Kurdish official, said initial operations succeeded due to close cooperation between the Iraqi government and Kurdish peshmerga fighters, allowing them to clear Islamic State from 9 or 10 villages east of Mosul.

“Daesh is disoriented they don’t know whether to expect attacks from the east or west or north,” he told Reuters.

On Tuesday the attacking forces entered another phase, he said. “It won’t be a spectacular attack on Mosul itself. It will be very cautious. It is a high risk operation for everybody.”

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and explosives expert Fawzi Ali Nouimeh were both in the city, according to what he described as “solid” intelligence reports.

A total of 20 villages were taken from the militants east, south and southeast of Mosul by early Tuesday, according to statements from the two forces, fighting alongside one another for the first time.

Islamic State said on Monday its fighters had targeted the attacking forces with 10 suicide bombs and that their foes had surrounded five villages but not taken them. None of the reports could be independently verified.


Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the offensive on Monday around two years after Iraq’s second-largest city fell to the militants, who exploited the civil war that broke out in Syria in 2011 to seize territory there.

The operation had been planned since July with U.S. and other coalition forces and Western and Iraqi officials, mindful of the civil war that followed Saddam’s fall, say plans for administering the mainly Sunni city and accommodating those who flee the fighting are in place.

The United Nations has said up to a million people could flee the city and that it expected the first big wave in five or six days, indicating fighting would reach the city then.

But some residents said Islamic State was making sure people did not leave. Anwar said he fled his Sumer district, which lies near Mosul airport, fearing ground forces and aeriel bombing.

“I told Daesh fighters at a checkpoint I’m going to stay at my sister’s house,” he said. “A Daesh fighter made calls through his radio to make sure I was not lying and only after the voice on the other side said ‘Let him go’, did I let myself breathe.”

Fighting is expected to take weeks, if not months, as some 30,000 government forces, Sunni tribal fighters and Kurdish Peshmerga first encircle the city then attempt to oust between 4,000 and 8,000 Islamic State militants.

More than 5,000 U.S. soldiers are also deployed in support missions, as are troops from France, Britain, Canada and other Western nations.

The Iraqi army is attacking Mosul on the southern and southeastern fronts, while the Peshmerga carried out their operation to the east and are also deployed north and northwest.

The Kurdish forces said they secured “a significant stretch” of the 80 km (50 mile) road between Erbil, their capital, and Mosul, about an hour’s drive to the west.

Coalition warplanes attacked 17 Islamic State positions in support of the Peshmerga operation in the heavily mined area, the Kurdish statement said, adding that at least four car bombs were destroyed.

There was no indication about the number of military or civilian casualties in the Iraqi or Kurdish statements.

Obama is seeking to put an end to the “caliphate” – a launch pad for attacks on civilians in the West – before he leaves office in January.

France said it would co-host a multilateral meeting with Iraq on Oct. 20 to discuss how to stabilize Mosul and its surroundings once Islamic State has been defeated.

Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the militants were likely to retreat to their Syrian bastion Raqqa, so it was vital to consider how to retake that city too.

“We can’t let Islamic State reconstitute itself or strengthen to create an even more dangerous hub,” he said.

The Mosul plan calls for the governor of the city’s Nineveh province, Nawfal al-Agoub, to be restored and the city divided into sub-districts with local mayors for each. Agoub will govern along with a senior representative from Baghdad and from Erbil, capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.

Screening procedures for any civilians able to flee Mosul have been enhanced, in an effort to learn from the battle for Fallujah, in Anbar province. There, Sunni men and boys were held, tortured and in some cases killed by Shi’ite militia members, who had erected makeshift checkpoints.

The U.N. refugee agency said it had built five camps to house 45,000 people and plans to have an additional six in the coming weeks with a capacity for 120,000, that would still not be enough to cope if the exodus is as big as feared.

(Additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh in ERBIL, Ahmed Rasheed and Stephen Kalin in BAGHDAD, Stephanie Nebehay in GENEVA, Warren Strobel, Yara Bayoumy and Jonathan Landay in WASHINGTON; writing by Philippa Fletcher; editing by Giles Elgood)

WFP warns of serious food shortages in besieged Fallujah

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Humanitarian disaster is looming in the western Iraq city of Fallujah, an Islamic State stronghold under siege by security forces, where tens of thousands of people face food shortages, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said on Tuesday.

There is no flour, rice, sugar or oil available in Fallujah and the prices of the little food that is left have risen sharply, the agency quoted Fallujah residents as telling it.

Fuel and cooking oil are no longer available and the price of a kilo of flour leaped to $20 in January, up more than 800 percent from December, the WFP said.

The Iraqi army, police and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias – backed by air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition – imposed a near total siege late last year on Fallujah, located 30 miles west of Baghdad in the Euphrates river valley.

“The humanitarian situation in Fallujah is dire and residents need immediate assistance,” WFP spokeswoman Marwa Awad told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We are aware that no food is going into the city and that militant groups are controlling the remaining food supplies.”

It has been too dangerous for the WFP to reach the area since September, when it delivered a one-month supply of food to 400 families in Garma, 6 miles from Fallujah, she said.

“We are deeply concerned about the worsening humanitarian situation inside Fallujah where many people require immediate food assistance,” Awad said. “We are ready to help but we are on standby until … the authorities give the green light to go in.”

Of the estimated 30,000 – 60,000 residents of Fallujah, a “significant number” are surviving on potatoes and other local food, after moving towards rural areas on the outskirts of the city, Awad said by phone from Iraq.

“We call on all parties to allow access to prevent a humanitarian disaster,” she said. “Sadly, everyone is focused on Syria and Yemen and the international community is no longer prioritizing Iraq, that’s the problem.”

In January, 32 people were reported to have died from starvation in Syria in areas that had been under siege for months.

Fallujah, a long-time bastion of Sunni Muslim jihadists, was the first Iraqi city to fall to Islamic State, in January 2014, six months before the group swept through large parts of northern and western Iraq and neighboring Syria.

(Reporting by Magdalena Mis, editing by Tim Pearce.)

Iraqis running out of food and medicine in besieged Fallujah

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of trapped Iraqi civilians are running out of food and medicine in the western city of Fallujah, an Islamic State stronghold under siege by security forces, according to local officials and residents.

The Iraqi army, police and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias – backed by air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition – late last year imposed a near total siege on Fallujah, located 30 miles west of Baghdad in the Euphrates river valley.

The city’s population is suffering from a shortage of food, medicine and fuel, residents and officials told Reuters by phone, and media reports said several people had died due to starvation and poor medical care. Insecurity and poor communications inside the city make those reports difficult to verify.

Sohaib al-Rawi, the governor of Anbar province where Fallujah is located, appealed to the coalition to air-drop humanitarian supplies to the trapped civilians. He said this was the only way to deliver aid after Islamic State mined the entrances to the city and stopped people leaving.

“No force can enter and secure (the delivery) … There is no option but for airplanes to transport aid,” he said in an interview with al-Hadath TV late on Monday, adding the situation was deteriorating by the day.

Fallujah – a long-time bastion of Sunni Muslim jihadists – was the first Iraqi city to fall to Islamic State, in January 2014, six months before the group that emerged from al Qaeda swept through large parts of northern and western Iraq and neighboring Syria.

Since recapturing the city of Ramadi – a further 50 km to the west – from Islamic State a month ago, Iraqi authorities have not made clear whether they will attempt to take Fallujah next or leave it contained while the bulk of their forces head north toward Mosul, the largest city under the militants’ control.

Falih al-Essawi, deputy chief of Anbar’s provincial council, said Islamic State had turned Falluja into “a huge detention center”.

“Security forces managed to control almost all areas around Falluja. This victory has helped to reduce Daesh (Islamic State) attacks outside the city, but it cost too much because civilians now are paying the price,” he said from Ramadi, warning of a potential humanitarian disaster.

A doctor at a hospital in Fallujah said medicine and supplies were running low, especially for post-natal care.

“What is the sin of those born after living in their mothers’ womb without nutrition or protection except from God?” she said.

Spokesmen for the Iraqi army, police and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias besieging Fallujah were not immediately available to comment.


The U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State estimates there are around 400 fighters from the ultra-hardline Sunni militant group in Fallujah, though some military analysts put the figure at closer to 1,000.

The coalition, which includes European and Arab powers, dropped food and water in 2014 to members of Iraq’s minority Yazidi community trapped on Mount Sinjar by Islamic State – a humanitarian crisis that sparked the international air campaign.

A Baghdad-based spokesman for the coalition did not rule out a similar operation in Fallujah but said Islamic State’s control of the city made it more challenging.

“The thing about an air-drop is it’s very difficult to control who gets it,” said U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren. “The conditions have to be such that the people who you want to receive the supplies are actually able to receive them and there’s no evidence that that’s the case in Fallujah.”

Rawi, the provincial governor, said Islamic State was using civilians as human shields in Falluja like it did in Ramadi – a tactic that slowed the advance of Iraqi forces.

He said media reports of up to 10 deaths due to starvation and insufficient medical care were accurate, but local officials could not provide details.

The price of food in Fallujah’s markets has rocketed and bakeries have begun rationing bread, residents told Reuters. They said fuel had become scarce during the cold winter months when temperatures drop close to freezing.

One man, who like the other residents declined to be named, said the last time Islamic State distributed basic food items a few weeks ago, much of it had already gone off.

Lise Grande, U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, described conditions in Falluja as “terrible”.

“We’re incredibly worried about the unconfirmed reports of people dying because of lack of medicine and widespread hunger,” she told Reuters.

The United Nations appealed on Sunday for $861 million to help Iraq meet a big funding gap in its 2016 emergency response to the humanitarian crisis caused by the war against Islamic State which has left 10 million people in need of urgent aid.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Saif Hameed; Editing by Pravin Char)