The United Nations expressed late on Sunday concern over the humanitarian situation of tens of thousands of civilians still caught behind ISIS lines as US-backed Iraqi government troops launched a new offensive to retake the northern city of Mosul.
Up to 200,000 civilians in Mosul’s Old City and three other districts are struggling to get food, water and medicine, UN Humanitarian Coordinator Lise Grande told Reuters.
People who had managed to get out of the militant areas “report a dramatic situation including lack of food, limited water and severe shortages of medicines,” Grande said by phone.
“We know that there have been health facilities in these areas, but we don’t know whether they are still functioning.”
On Saturday, Iraq’s army said it had launched a new offensive to take the militant zones on the western side of the Tigris river.
Progress has been slow, an Iraqi government adviser told Reuters, also late on Sunday. “The fighting is extremely intense … the presence of civilians means we have to be very cautious,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Overnight, planes dropped “thousands of leaflets on the Old Mosul, Al-Zinjili, Al-Shifaa and Al-Saha areas urging citizens to leave toward our security forces,” it said.
“We have been informed by authorities that the evacuation is not compulsory … If civilians decide to stay … they will be protected by Iraqi security forces,” said Grande.
“People who choose to flee will be directed to safe routes. The location of these will change depending on which areas are under attack and dynamics on the battlefield,” she added.
International aid organization Save the Children has said it is “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.”
The latest Iraqi government push is part of a broader offensive in Mosul, now in its eighth month. It has taken longer than planned as the militants are dug in among civilians, retaliating with suicide car and motorbike bombs, booby traps, snipers and mortar fire.
Its prime target is the medieval Grand al-Nuri mosque with its landmark leaning minaret in Mosul’s Old City, where ISIS’s black flag has been flying since mid-2014.
The fall of Mosul would, in effect, mark the end of the Iraqi half of the so-called “caliphate” declared nearly three years ago by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a speech at the mosque.
About 700,000 people, about a third of the pre-war city’s population, have already fled, seeking refuge either with friends and relatives or in camps.
Meanwhile, in an interview on Sunday, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said civilian casualties are inevitable in the war against ISIS, but the United States is doing “everything humanly possible” to avoid them.
Interviewed on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program, Mattis said that “civilian casualties are a fact of life in this sort of situation.”
But he quickly added that “we do everything humanly possible, consistent with military necessity, taking many chances to avoid civilian casualties — at all costs.”
Some NGOs have blamed the rising civilian death toll on a push by President Donald Trump’s administration to accelerate the pace of combat in an effort to “annihilate” the extremists.
But the Pentagon contests both the NGOs’ death counts and the charge that a new sense of urgency under Trump is to blame.
“We have not changed the rules of engagement,” Mattis said. “There is no relaxation of our intention to protect the innocent.”