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Feature: Humanitarian crisis looms as prolonged battles in Mosul seems no quick end

Xinhua, November 24, 2016 Adjust font size:

Surging forward to the door of a truck carrying food to Mosul, the city in northern Iraq that is witnessing spreading battles and destruction, hundreds of people raised their hands to scramble for a box of aid.

The soldiers escorting three trucks loaded with oil, flour, rice and sugar shouted at the crowds, trying to keep them in line, but had to open the door to distribute the food as soon as possible in fear of attacks by the Islamic State (IS) militants coming from nowhere out of the tunnels in the district liberated by the army early this month.

Children were crying loud in the chaos, even louder than the sound of heavy machine guns fired in other districts in eastern Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq that was seized by IS in June 2014.

Despite the tradition of storing three-month supply, many people in Mosul are running out of food after living under IS control for more than two years.

"We support each other in the past two years, but everyone is living in fear for such a long time and that's why they scramble for food even when they still have certain storage," said 26-year-old college student Jassim.

All these people are living on Saddam Street which was changed to the name of an IS leader after the group seized the city. Walls along the street were covered by bullet holes and many windows were smashed. The counter-terrorism soldiers had to drive a Humvee to tow away the wreckage of the car bomb to make room for the crowds.

"The militants launched nine suicide car bombing attacks when we were trying to take that street," said Mohammed who fought against IS since Oct. 31, pointing at the crossroad about 50 meters away where nearby houses were destroyed.

"The snipers are taking cover at civilian houses, using them as human shields, so we cannot bomb their positions, but have to search street by street, building by building. It takes a lot of time and is quite risky," he said.

Despite being threatened by stray bullets and rocket attacks, most of the people are not willing to leave for IDP camps. They say they would rather take risks living in their houses than living in tents during the coming winter.

However, even if they want to take shelter in the camps which are dozens of kilometers away from street battles, they may not get their way.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released a report on Monday that "68,550 people are currently displaced and in need of humanitarian assistance" since the military operations to retake Mosul began on Oct. 17, and "camp capacity stands at 10,000 available family plots in eight camps which today could house 60,000 people."

It added "With winter temperatures arriving in northern Iraq, creation of additional capacity is accelerating to accommodate new displacement."

However, the OCHA said in an earlier report that it was expecting 200,000 people to flee in the first few days of an attack to retake the city, but said the worst case scenario could be up to 700,000 people. Up to 1.5 million people in the city could be in need of aid.

The three-week street battles in the densely packed districts in Mosul showed that fighting against more than 3,000 IS militants, according to estimation of the Iraqi army, seems to take more weeks, if not months.

The Iraqi Joint Operations Command said Wednesday that the Iraqi army and allied paramilitary units, known as Hashd Shaabi, on Wednesday completely encircled Mosul, while the counter-terrorism forces are continuing to clear the militants in and out of Mosul after more than a month since the major offensive was launched.

The Shiite units advanced to west of the IS-held town of Tal Afar, some 70 km west of Mosul, recapturing six villages and seizing the main road between Tal Afar and nearby town of Sinjar, cutting off the IS supply routes from the west side of Mosul, and enabling both the paramilitary units and other Iraqi and Kurdish forces to entirely isolate and surround the city, according to the statement.

The UN agencies warned that the battles to retake Mosul could spark the biggest humanitarian crisis of the year and called for the international community to provide support for the war-torn country.

Though the aid agencies are worrying about the possible worst scenarios, the residents who have been liberated by the army in Mosul's eastern districts are optimistic. "The worst scenarios are gone. We are free now and freedom matters," said Jamal Karim, who was waiting with his grandson to receive aid package on Saddam Street, under the protection of the army. Endit