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Martin Armstrong

Troops in Mosul advance amid rising civilian death toll

Iraqi forces have faced fierce resistance from IS militants encamped in Mosul [AFP]

Date of publication: 1 December, 2016

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Military advisors have praised the 'dramatic progress' of Iraqi forces, but with hundreds of civilians killed since operations began in October, concerns rise as the battle proceeds.
Iraqi forces currently battling against the Islamic State group in Mosul have demonstrated “a remarkable turnaround” in combating the extremist group since it swept across vast swathes of Iraq in 2014, according to one British military advisor.

However, aid groups - who warned about a lack of humanitarian considerations in military planning for Mosul before the battle began - have expressed concerns about rising civilian casualties as Iraqi units press further into the war-torn city.

“It's been well over a year since [IS] last defeated an Iraqi force, although they continue to resist,” said British Army Major General Rupert Jones, a deputy commander in the combined joint task force Operation Inherent Resolve, speaking in Baghdad on Wednesday.

“We're a coalition of more than 60 nations, united against [IS]. And we're very proud that so many have offered contributions to fight against [IS] twisted ideology here in Iraq.”

Military gains and humanitarian concerns

More than 4,500 foreign troops are involved in training Iraqi forces currently taking part in operations in Mosul which began in late October. Despite international support, death tolls continue to rise, with as many as 1 million people still trapped in the city.

This week Nineveh’s provincial council reported that more than 550 civilians had been killed to date, in addition to dozens of Iraqi troops in the ongoing battle.

"Fighting has reached more densely populated areas now and the situation for civilians inside the city is worsening," said Caroline Gluck, a UNHCR representative in Iraq, speaking to The New Arab.

"Things like food, electricity, and water are all scarce, and this could lead to an exodus."

Among growing humanitarian concerns, on Wednesday UNICEF reported that damage to a major pipeline – one of three feeding an area of eastern Mosul controlled by IS militants –had restricted access to potable water for up to 300,000 children and their families in the city.

Iraqi authorities are currently trucking water into eastern Mosul from a location 35 km away in order to make up for the shortfall.

“Children and their families are facing a horrific situation in Mosul. Not only are they in danger of getting killed or injured in the crossfire, now potentially more than half a million people do not have safe water to drink,” said Peter Hawkins, UNICEF’s representative in Iraq, noting that a lack of access to potable water increased the chances of waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea, and malnutrition spreading.

Battle planning and budget deficits

Before current campaigns on Mosul began aid groups expressed grave concern civilians could be caught in the crossfire with organisations including Save The Children calling for the establishment of safe-corridors out of the city.

Speaking in September Alun Mcdonald, Middle East region media manager at Save the Children told The New Arab that military planning had insufficiently factored in potential humanitarian consequences with the ability of aid organisations to cope with population displacements also compromised by budget deficits.

In September the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) announced that the UN’s aid appeal of $861 million for Mosul stood less than 40 percent funded as military strategising and funding pressed ahead.

"There has been a lack of planning; either there will be a lot of civilian casualties or a lot of people fleeing," said McDonald, speaking in September, expressing concern that civilians in Mosul could be used by IS militants as human-shields, a reality that has now transpired.

"The humanitarian aspect has been like an afterthought."

Challenging realities on the ground

Battle plans for Mosul are said to have envisioned local residents taking shelters in their homes as Iraqi troops advanced.

This was partly intended to prevent a mass exodus from the city, with aid groups expressing that, partly due to aid deficits, they are suffering from shortfalls in emergency shelters to meet the needs of those displaced.

Gluck said that the plan had proved successful in some regards but not in others.

“We thought as many as 200,000 people could be displaced in the first couple of weeks, but now we are more than six weeks in and only 77,046 people have been displaced.,” said Gluck.

As Iraqi forces have entered Mosul IS fighters have increasingly deployed suicide truck attacks, snipers and booby trapped explosives, slowing advances on the city, while the proximity of frontlines has also limited the efficacy of coalition airstrikes.

Gluck expressed concern that one reason figures of displacement were lower than expected was because IS militants were preventing civilians from leaving, using civilians as human shields.

Reports have emerged of IS executing both residents attempting to leave, and accused of "leaking information" to Iraqi forces.

“This is a great concern that we have,” said Gluck. "This battle will not be finished overnight."

On Wednesday Iraqi forces said that they had retaken 19 neighbourhoods from IS militants, and were poised around 4.5 km from the Tigris river which bisects the city.

Progress is expected to slow further as advancing fighters increasingly engage IS gunmen in street-to-street combat, with further concerns raised over the wellbeing of civilians in a city lacking regular water and electricity supplies as cold, harsh winter conditions set in.

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