Will Mosul’s Residents Flee?

Government policymakers and humanitarian agencies have not adequately prepared for a scenario in which a significant portion of Mosul’s remaining 1.2 million residents stay in the city as it is liberated.

A view of Mosul in 2003.
A view of Mosul in 2003.

When the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) captured Mosul in June 2014, their advance prompted half a million Moslawis to flee their homes in 48 hours – one of the largest and swiftest mass movements of people in recent memory. Their flight precipitated a humanitarian crisis across the country, straining overburdened Iraqi and Kurdish capacities to house, feed, and protect internally displaced persons (IDPs). Impending operations to extirpate ISIS from Mosul could generate another million displaced residents – a nightmare scenario for in-country operators who, according to United Nations estimates, can only provide shelter for approximately 200,000 IDPs.

Yet, as Moslawi scholar Rasha al-Aqeedi concludes, “Mosul has…a resilience in the face of temporary intrusions and a pessimistic temperament that has its citizens always prepared for tough times.” Her description helps, in part, to explain why an estimated 1.2 million Moslawis remained in the city under ISIS occupation – and why a significant portion of this population may choose to stay as security forces encircle and storm Mosul.

While some Sunni residents welcomed the jihadists as an alternative to the sectarian government in Baghdad, many of those who remained in June 2014 did so for reasons unrelated to any sense of sympathy with ISIS ideology. After shaping new livelihoods under brutal occupation for two years, some residents today may feel greater fear for the uncertainty beyond Mosul’s outskirts than that which exists within. Others may not have the means to leave, or are deterred by ISIS’s policy of torturing and executing people its fighters catch trying to flee.

“Mosul has…a resilience in the face of temporary intrusions and a pessimistic temperament that has its citizens always prepared for tough times.”

A scenario in which a significant number of Moslawis remain in their homes would present a unique set of challenges for the Iraqi government, its international partners, and humanitarian organizations. It is critical that these entities understand why 1.2 million Moslawis chose to remain in their city. Armed with such an understanding, aid agencies can construct networks through which to distribute food, medicine, water, and information to embattled residents, and security forces can fairly and accurately screen residents inside the city for ISIS affiliation post-liberation.

Choosing to Stay Behind

When ISIS swept into Mosul, they coalesced local militant and insurgent elements under their black banner. Northern Iraq’s Sunni regions had long been a flashpoint for anti-government activity, and many of the groups in 2014 entertained deep hatred for each other. The Sunni insurgency included the jihadi Ansar al-Islam; the Military Council of the Tribes of Iraq, which comprises nearly eighty tribes; and the Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order, an organization that claims Shia, Kurdish, and former Baathist membership. These groups, which initially viewed ISIS as an ally against Baghdad’s perceived sectarian governance, were soon locked in a tense and unsustainable partnership with the jihadists – sparking conflict through which they were eventually suppressed under the so-called caliphate.

It is important to deepen the conversation regarding ISIS’s incursions in 2014. While prominent Sunni groups active across Ninewa Province – and in its capital city – joined with the jihadists, their support did not necessarily represent overall Moslawi sentiment. Oversimplification of the level of support that ISIS enjoyed from populations in seized territory casts all Moslawis as jihadist sympathizers. While some residents certainly expressed ambivalence or tacit acceptance of ISIS rule, there were few alternatives as Iraqi army and police units collapsed. Many others simply had nowhere to go. From his partially-destroyed home on 10 June 2014, one professor at Mosul University expressed a prevailing sense of desperation: “My house is gone. There are bodies on the roads. But I cannot leave – there is no security, my family is with me, and I have no weapon….I will accept this fate.”

Contacts across the city expressed similar justification for their choice to remain in the early days of ISIS occupation. In most cases their reasoning was colored by deep fear of the deteriorating security and rising sectarian hatred outside the city – as well as a more fundamental acceptance of fate. As Iraqi security forces abandoned their posts and weapons, many Moslawis did not know whether they could reach safety, or if life as an IDP would offer much stability or security under the militias mobilizing across southern and central Iraq.

In June-August 2014, ISIS’s lightning advances had pushed aside not only federal Iraqi army units but also Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. By August, militants had approached the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil and had penetrated into Diyala Province, only 70 km from Baghdad. As ISIS forces consolidated their gains in Mosul, they prevented residents from leaving. Those who did not escape on 10-13 June were trapped inside the city: ISIS summarily executed those caught attempting to flee its territory.

Such a journey presented challenges and dangers that many Moslawi families simply could not overcome. According to UN estimates, over one-third of those who remained were children; another one-fifth were widowed single mothers. They, along with the sick, elderly, and disabled, could not endure an arduous journey through ISIS front lines toward dubious salvation. Others refused to abandon their homes or property – which, in some cases, had been in families for generations. As one colleague declared the day before his phone line went silent, “I will not leave my library and my grandfather’s library behind to be burned by the Islamic State.”

Limited Options Today

Many of the same factors that forced Moslawis to remain in 2014 still shape sentiment across the city today. Aid organizations, including the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) have collected testimony from inside Mosul that indicate some residents fear their houses would either be destroyed or booby-trapped if they evacuate. Iraqi media consistently reports that families have been compelled to remain by threat of direct violence or retaliation against relatives by ISIS; in some cases, the militants have abducted children to deter their families from flight.

Most interlocutors are also concerned about the groups operating outside Mosul. As Iraqi forces prepare to liberate the city, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has assured observers that the powerful and sectarian Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) will remain outside the urban center. However, if Moslawis attempt to flee they will have to pass through a PMU cordon. In the past, international humanitarian monitors have criticized these groups for arbitrarily detaining, torturing, and in some instances, summarily executing military-age Sunni men from ISIS-held areas. In a recent interview with PBS Frontline, Hadi al-Ameri – head of the powerful Badr Organization – dismissed these claims as simply “what happens during wartime.” Such comments do little to assuage Moslawi fears of PMU revenge-seeking. Some trapped civilians declare that they would “rather die than live in an IDP camp.”

“I will not leave my library and my grandfather’s library behind to be burned by the Islamic State.”

Their concerns are founded in experience. For example, in Fallujah video emerged showing a commander from Abu al-Fadhl al-Abbas brigade (affiliated with the PMU) telling his fighters that the city had been a “bastion of terrorism and no civilians or true Muslims were left [there].”  A Human Rights Watch report noted that PMU had abducted over 600 men from Fallujah following the city’s liberation, many of whom were subject to abuse; in another instance, Shia militias reportedly executed dozens of men from the Jumaila tribe, north of Fallujah – including one teenager.

The Iraqi government has issued its own advice for Moslawis to stay in their homes during the upcoming military operation, dropping leaflets over the occupied city. While policymakers in Baghdad have mentioned the establishment of “humanitarian corridors” for civilian evacuation, there is little on-the-ground effort to plan for or implement them. Iraqi military commanders are well-aware that these routes will be near-impossible to secure, and have thus far refrained from identifying precise locations toward which IDPs can aim. Instead, Baghdad urged Moslawis to put tape on their windows to indicate civilian status – a policy employed in Fallujah and Sharqat, which also allowed ISIS to hide in residents’ homes.

On 11 October, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) Ninewa Operations Command hardened this advice, publishing 32 recommendations for civilians in Mosul. It advised residents to turn off gas and water and keep a wet cloth on hand to treat burns. Outlining the dangers of evacuation, the document instead encouraged Moslawis to monitor the recently launched Radio of the Republic of Iraq in Mosul and encouraged mothers to tell children that sounds of battle are “just a game” or “thunder and rain.” It concluded by asking that women “not scream too much.”

Given their own fears and Iraqi government advice to stay in their homes, Moslawis will likely be caught in the eventual crossfire as Iraqi forces and their partners enter Mosul. Humanitarian discussion has thus far focused on massive displacement, but it is critical that aid organizations plan for assisting civilians inside Mosul. The Iraqi Red Crescent has made important steps toward devising a “cross-line” strategy for aid distribution, identifying well over 1,000 volunteers inside ISIS-held territory. These individuals can coordinate medical evacuation for injured civilians, coordinate food, water, and medicine provision, and most importantly, act as conduits for information flow between residents and the Iraqi government that bypasses ISIS monitors. Other agencies could help expand this network as a first step toward managing the needs of those who choose to remain.

Confronting a Damaging Narrative

Iraqi and international policymakers must understand the reasons why many Moslawis remained in their city and devise strategies for reaching them. Aid agencies, which have been desperately building capacity to manage mass displacement from Mosul, should begin strategizing for those who remain as well. Above all, humanitarian workers, military commanders, and government officials must resist promulgating an oversimplified narrative that associates the city’s remaining Sunni residents with ISIS ideology, while considering those who fled in 2014 as largely blameless.

Presupposing the actions of 1.2 million Moslawis blinds the international community to a hidden population’s suffering, and could exacerbate the current crisis through lack of preparation. As the Iraqi government urges Mosul’s residents to remain in their homes, Baghdad and its partners must back up their tactical arrangements with longer-term planning for addressing these civilians’ needs. By considering the needs of Moslawis inside the city, planners can better ensure that post-ISIS governance meets citizen needs.

Ultimately, the upcoming battle for Mosul will inevitably result in thousands of civilian casualties. Urban combat’s vicious and relatively indiscriminate nature leaves Moslawis with little recourse or opportunity to find safety. For these civilians, two years of ISIS occupation brought intense suffering and oppression. Yet liberation promises merely to replace one set of dangers with another.

One political analyst in Baghdad expressed this prevailing sentiment last summer: “We have been anxiously waiting for Mosul’s freedom, but…I am more afraid of the information I will receive when the waiting is over.” His words should serve as a warning and call to action.

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