Caught in the crossfire, driven to hunger, held as human shields – civilians trapped in Mosul face a living nightmare, as coalition forces attempt to topple the last urban stronghold of ISIS in Iraq, while meting out sectarian punishments of their own.
The battle to retake Mosul, captured by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) in summer 2014, began in October when Iraqi security forces, Shia and tribal militias, and the Kurdish Peshmerga launched an audacious ground assault with British and US-led air support.
Fierce IS resistance and concern for the estimated 1.5 million civilians still trapped inside the city, however, have stalled the operation’s progress, casting doubt over the swift liberation that Baghdad and coalition strategists had hoped for.
“They will pour out of Mosul traumatized, some of them having been bombed, some of them having lost limbs and there may be one and a half million people in that condition,” said Nicholson. “So inevitably there’s going to be a huge amount of damaged humans.
“AMAR specializes in that, it’s exactly why we exist – it’s to help people when they’re in desperate situations and to patch them up as fast as possible, save their lives and to get them into secure locations.”
The AMAR Foundation, established in response to Saddam Hussein’s persecution of the Marsh Arabs, launched its Mosul Appeal in October to provide medical services and education to Iraq’s internally displaced.
“The fall of Mosul is a terrifying prospect for the inhabitants of Mosul and AMAR has to be ready to save as many lives as possible,” Nicholson added.
The peer is unambiguous in her assessment of what lies in store for Islamic State’s captive subjects.
“The Islamic State have captured and kidnapped a lot of people. Some of them were already residents of Mosul, others not residents of Mosul, and they’re really using them as human sacrifices.
“They are using them to demonstrate their extreme cruelty, and they’re using cruelty to cow a resident population into submission and to frighten away others.
“They are also using cruelty to attract global sadists who come to practice their sadism. There’s a small proportion of the human race that are born sadists, sadly, or born without any understanding of inflicting pain on others. They don’t have that feeling in them.
“So it’s not really human shields that are being used. Now, I’m sorry to say, it’s basically human sacrifices and those people will probably die. But many others will escape. And we must save as many lives as possible in the AMAR Foundation.”
Atrocities committed by IS militants against civilians are well documented, but a growing body of evidence suggests torture, home demolitions, and extrajudicial killings are not confined to jihadist ranks.
Amnesty International researcher Diana Eltahawy and her team recently uncovered evidence of Iraqi federal police apparently executing Sunni Arab villagers in revenge for IS attacks – allegations vehemently denied by the Iraqi government, which has refused to launch an inquiry.
“In one particular incident, on the 21st of August, we found that armed men wearing federal police uniforms tortured and killed at least six villagers in the south of Mosul on suspicion that they might have had links with the armed group calling itself the Islamic State,”Eltahawy explained.
“According to information that we have, these were villagers who had stayed behind while fighters had moved the majority of the civilian population out of the area, so Iraqi forces present on the ground appear to have been suspicious that anyone who remained behind might have been a fighter.
“But these are individuals who did not pose any threat, they were villagers who handed themselves over to the Iraqi forces, who carried white flags and who lifted their shirts to show they didn’t have explosive belts. And after that they were beaten, they had their beards pulled and in one case burned before a group of them were taken aside and shot dead.”
Iraq is a majority Shia country, but Mosul and its hinterland are home to many millions of Sunni Arabs. The Islamic State has sought to exploit sectarian resentment among Sunnis who have been effectively disenfranchised by Baghdad’s Shia dominated establishment.
Revelations of sectarian abuse perpetrated by Mosul’s supposed liberators do not bode well for reconciliation.
Tallha Abdulrazaq, a researcher at the University of Exeter’s Strategy & Security Institute, says the blame for this simmering resentment lies with the policies of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his successor Haider al-Abadi’s failure to address Iraq’s burning civil rights question.
“The issue here is that after 2008, the Maliki government marginalized the Sunni Arab community. So right now the Sunni Arab community are thinking ‘why should we put our necks out on the line only for you to revert back to your sectarian policies?’
“So even with Daesh [IS] being defeated, and even considering that they have a lack of support among the vast majority of Sunni Arabs, Sunni Arabs have no interest in fighting them because, frankly, they see the Iraqi government and, to a lesser degree the Peshmerga units that are doing this, razing homes, they see them as being the same as Daesh, not any better.”
Abdulrazaq says a far-reaching political solution is required to work in tandem with the Iraqi government’s military strategy, otherwise the conditions that allowed IS to grow and maintain its grip for so long will remain unchanged.
“If we restore equal rights to all Iraqis, whether they’re Kurdish, Sunni, whether they’re Arab Sunnis, whether they’re Shia Arabs, whether they’re Shia Turkman, it doesn’t really matter, so long as they’re treated equally as Iraqi citizens, we will have a solution to Daesh. Right now, that doesn’t exist.”
“The best case scenario is for the Iraqi military, including the popular mobilization forces and the tribal militias, to stop any and all atrocities right now, because if they manage to get the civilians on board, if the people of Mosul and the Iraqi community, the Sunni Arab community especially, manage to see this is different from Falluja, this is different from Tikrit and all these other places where atrocities have been committed, there’s a chance at some kind of reconciliation.
“But that’s very unlikely to happen. So, I’m afraid all I have for you is a worst-case scenario – that atrocities continue, sectarian rule is restored over the city of Mosul and the threat of Daesh doesn’t disappear – it remains because they have no partners on the ground who are able to effectively neutralize them, as happened in 2008 with Al-Qaeda.”
The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s so-called caliphate as a territorial edifice within Iraq will no doubt strike a devastating blow to the jihadist group’s morale and global reach. Its survival as a guerrilla force, however, capable of continuing some form of asymmetric warfare, remains a pervasive fear.
“The best case scenario would be if the vile Baghdadi drops down dead, as it were, and all his people ran away,” said Nicholson. “The question is where they run to.”
“The worst case scenario is when they run into the undergrowth and they become sleepers in differed cities and towns and tribes and villages throughout Iraq and, in that sense, never give up.”