The United States said Thursday that up to 900 Islamic State group jihadists have been killed in the offensive to retake Iraq’s Mosul. Fleeing civilians are filling up camps around the city.
Iraqis who fled their homes expressed joy at escaping IS’s brutal rule as they were given shelter and assistance. Some reunited with relatives they had not seen in more than two years.
The offensive, launched on October 17, is seeing tens of thousands of Iraqi fighters advancing on Mosul. They are advancing from the south, east and north to retake the last major Iraqi city under IS control.
Backed with air and ground support from a US-led coalition, federal forces allied with Kurdish peshmerga fighters have taken a string of towns and villages in a cautious but steady advance.
General Joseph Votel, head of US military’s Central Command, told AFP the offensive was inflicting heavy toll on the jihadists.
“Just in the operations over the last week and a half associated with Mosul, we estimate they’ve probably killed about 800-900 Islamic State fighters,” Votel said in an interview.
There are between 3,500 and 5,000 IS jihadists in Mosul. Another 2,000 are in the broader area, according to US estimates.
Votel also said he had spoken with Iraqi military leaders late Tuesday who told him that as of that time, 57 members of the Iraqi security forces had been killed and another 255 or so wounded.
For the Kurdish regional peshmerga forces, numbers were lower, about 30 lost their lives and between 70 and 100 wounded.
The offensive has been heaviest in towns and villages around Mosul. Iraqi forces later expected to breach city limits and engage the jihadists in street-to-street fighting.
Aid workers have warned of a major humanitarian crisis when fighting begins in earnest for Mosul. Mosul is home to more than a million people, but thousands have already been fleeing surrounding areas.
Iraq’s ministry of displacement and migration said the number of people displaced is more than 11,700 people.
“There’s been quite a dramatic upturn in the last few days. The number of displaced people is growing as the Iraqi troops get closer to Mosul. There are more populated areas,” said Karl Schembri, regional media adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council.
At a camp in Khazir, about mid-way between Mosul and the Iraqi Kurdish capital Arbil, peshmerga fighters can be seen registering the displaced.
“Once we finish all these procedures we will be able to give them food and drink and blankets that we brought with us,” he said.
Other families had already found each other, and tearful relatives clutched hands through the links of the fence.
Saddam Dahham, who lived under IS control in a village near Mosul for more than two years, fled to Khazir with his wife and their three children.
“The did not allow us to smoke, to use phones, not allowed to watch TV. We also have to let our beards grow long,” the 36-year-old said.
Not enough room at camps
One of the first things he did after arriving at the camp was joyfully shave the “heavy thing dangling from my chin,” Dahham said.
“I’m finally going to resume a normal life,” the former truck driver said.
Schembri said the Norwegian Refugee Council, other aid agencies and the United Nations were planning for 200,000 people to be displaced in the next few days, though it may not reach that figure.
If the number of people displaced gets anything close to 200,000 in the immediate future, there would be a major shortage of places in camps.
“Camp facilities are available for only 60,000 people, Schembri said.
IS formed a cross-border “caliphate” after seizing control of large parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria in mid 2014. It also imposed its harsh interpretation of Islamic law as well as committed widespread atrocities.
Its rule was especially harsh for religious minorities.
On Thursday two Yazidi women activists won the European Parliament’s prestigious Sakharov human rights prize. The two had survived a nightmare ordeal at the hands of IS.