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Tens of Thousands Flee As Battle For Mosul Intensifies

By Linda Gradstein | The Media Line

March 5, 2017

Iraqi forces flash the V-sign as they stand on an infantry fighting vehicle in the Al-Shura area, south of Mosul, on October 24, 2016 (Photo: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
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Reports of Possible Chemical Weapons Attacks

Almost 50,000 people have fled Mosul in recent days as fighting between US-backed coalition forces and Islamic State troops has intensified. Some left so quickly that they fled barefoot to an area that is full of mud after heavy winter rains.

The International Organization of Migrants found that since the effort to recapture Mosul began four months ago, more than 200,000 people have been displaced, including 100,000 children.

There have also been reports of chemical weapons. The United Nations warned that if confirmed the alleged use of chemical weapons in Mosul in Iraq would be considered a war crime and a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

“This is horrible,” Lise Grande, the humanitarian coordinator in Iraq said in the statement, “there is never justification—none whatsoever—for the use of chemical weapons.” The alleged attack occurred this week in eastern Mosul, an area declared fully liberated by Iraqi forces in January. The attack hit a neighborhood along the Tigris River, which roughly divides the city in two.

Doctors in an urgent care hospital in the nearby city of Irbil say they began receiving patients showing symptoms of chemical weapons exposure on Thursday. One family in Irbil told journalists that a “mortar” hit his house and his children had burns to their faces, arms and legs. The deputy director of the hospital in Irbil said that all ten patients admitted for exposure are in stable condition and will be discharged in the coming days.

“Some people have breathing problems, like a spasm or an asthma attack, and the majority of the patients have developed different sizes of blisters,” Dr. Christine Bartulec of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told The Media Line.

IHS conflict monitor, a London-based research and intelligence group found that Islamic State has used chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria at least 52 times, and that at least 19 of the 52 attacks took place around Mosul.

US-backed Iraqi forces are currently fighting Islamic State to dislodge them from western Mosul, which remains under their control. It is the last significant urban area Islamic State controls and losing it would be a serious defeat for the group. An Iraqi commander said that troops are moving toward the local government complex in Mosul amid the “heaviest” clashes since the start of a new push more than two weeks ago.

Amid the fighting in Mosul, Human Rights Watch released a report that the US-backed Iraqi forces have forcibly displaced at least 125 families said to have familial ties to affiliates of Islamic State. The report charged that Sunni tribal groups that are part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which are under the control of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and Iraqi soldiers forced the families out of their homes after local authorities issued decrees. The families are being held against their will in a camp functioning as an open-air prison near Tikrit. The PMF also destroyed some of the families’ homes. In many cases, the families are not believed to really be affiliated with Islamic State.

“We can’t be sure people are being honest but all the people we interviewed said that only distant relatives are affiliated with Islamic State or they were not affiliated at all,” Belkis Wille, the senior Iraq researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW) told The Media Line. “In some cases we believe it had to do with land disputes.”

She said that HRW opposes collective punishment and is concerned that similar cases will recur.

“In discussions with tribal leaders they said they had the same plan,” she said. “Our main goal is for the authorities in Baghdad to condemn the practice and announce they will punish any state forces who participate in it.”

In some cases, local PMF forces destroyed hundreds of homes with explosives after they retook the area, targeting not only families allegedly affiliated with Islamic State but some families that had fled the fighting.

According to international law, parties to a conflict may attack only military targets, the report said.

 

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