WASHINGTON (Oct 21, 2016)—CIVIC Senior Program Manager MENA Sahr Muhammedally said:

“The Iraqi assault on Mosul, which started on Oct. 17 with air support from the U.S.-led coalition, could be a turning point in the fight against ISIS. But it is also in danger of becoming a catastrophe for the city’s more than 1 million inhabitants if there is not careful coordination in how to evacuate civilians who wish to leave and to protect those who either choose to remain or cannot flee. Failure to do so could create what the United Nations has warned would be the biggest man-made humanitarian disaster in recent memory.

“Already, there are reliable reports of civilians being used by ISIS as human shields. The anti-ISIS coalition, Iraqi Security Forces, as well as Kurdish Peshmerga, should take all precautions and adjust tactics to reduce civilian harm given that ISIS hides amongst civilians.”

On Oct 6, 2016, just days before the start of the operation, Muhammedally briefed the US Congress Thomas Lantos Human Rights Commission. She made the following recommendations:

Preparation before and during operations:

  • A coordinated plan on how to safely evacuate civilians and protect those who remain should have been agreed to before the operation. Adjust plans based on new tactical challenges posed by ISIS.
  • The US-led anti-ISIS coalition should develop joint rules of engagement with Iraqi Security Forces and Peshmerga to reduce risk to civilians and civilian objects and ensure all forces agree to these rules prior to operations. Such measures should take into account situations where ISIS does not leave Mosul city and prevents civilians from leaving and what additional guidance is needed to reduce risk to civilians.
  • The US-led anti-ISIS coalition should train local forces on legal and strategic importance of minimizing civilian harm and property damage. The training should emphasize how to positively identify targets when ISIS members could be mixed with civilians and exercise tactical patience in the use of force. ISF and Peshmerga need to learn how to conduct battle damage assessments that take into account civilian harm and encouraged to send to operational command HQ to identify lessons to reduce harm.
  • Ensure no Shi’a Popular Mobilization Forces are involved in the assault of Mosul city nor at security screening facilities where civilians fleeing ISIS-held areas are questioned given allegations of abuse against Sunni men and boys in the Fallujah and Ramadi operations.
  • Train female soldiers and encourage their deployment with Peshmerga and ISF to engage with women fleeing ISIS areas at security screening centers and to assist women and girls who have been held captive by ISIS.

Planning for after operations:

  • Develop plans to communicate when civilians may return to their homes with safety and dignity.
  • Ensure a holding police force for Mosul city that is both representative of the community, adequately trained and equipped to protect civilians from revenge attacks, and ensure sufficient oversight of such a force.
  • Ensure adequate resources are allocated to de-mine and rebuild the city and its environs.

Civilians face a bleak choice between staying in ISIS-controlled areas where many have suffered extreme violence and food shortages, or risk explosive devices and bullets to escape the fighting. It is essential that forces involved in the Mosul campaign adhere to precautionary measures to minimize civilian harm and property during operations.

Iraqi and Kurdish officials also need to also think about the day after Mosul is retaken. Mosul, like other cities in Iraq, will likely be heavily mined. For civilians to return to their homes, the herculean task of demining and removing unexploded bombs and IEDs will need to be sufficiently resourced. Iraq urgently needs a fully-funded reconstruction plan for its cities, so that the thousands of IDPs living in camps, host communities, and abandoned buildings have homes to return to.

“The retaking of Mosul is a huge challenge,” said Muhammedally. “But it is also a test for the Iraqi government to show whether it can win both the war and the peace that should hopefully follow.”

Notes to editors:
Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)’s mission is to improve protection for civilians caught in conflicts around the world. We call on and advise international organizations, governments, militaries, and armed non-state actors to adopt and implement policies to prevent civilian harm. When civilians are harmed we advocate for the provision of amends and post-harm assistance. We bring the voices of civilians themselves to those making decisions affecting their lives.

For more information, contact Christopher Allbritton at +1 (917) 310-4785 or chris@civiliansinconflict.org.

Image courtesy of CIVIC