Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi army are closing in on the northern city but the battle to liberate it may unleash a humanitarian disaster
The campaign to oust Isis from Mosul could trigger an exodus of up to a million civilians into Iraqi Kurdistan, and risks overwhelming a region already strained to near breaking point by multiple crises, internal government documents seen by the Observer reveal.
A plan for handling the possible refugee surge, that also doubles as a desperate call for help from the international community, warns that the Kurdistan Regional Government can barely support the 1.5 million people who have already fled to the territory. Iraqi Kurdistan is already struggling with an economic collapse, the battle against Isis and the ongoing refugee crisis. Without extra funding for the expected influx, social, economic, political and security stability of the region will be at risk of total collapse, the documents warn. Officials also say that security may be at threat from Isis militants attempting to infiltrate among the refugees.
The current capacity of the Kurdistan Regional Government to respond to the new waves of displacement is close to non-existent, the contingency plan drawn up by the regional interior ministry warns. It [is] already overstretched with the financial crisis and being the host of over 1.5 million [displaced people], as well as the costly war with Isis.
The long, complex push for Mosul is a joint effort between the Kurdish peshmerga, Iraqi forces and Shia militias, backed by US air support, who are expected to close in on the city within weeks. Mosul will be liberated in 2016, Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi said last week.
The Iraqi military is fighting its way up the Tigris river as peshmerga forces close in from the east. Iraqi troops took the key town of Qaraya, near a major airbase, 70km south of Mosul, while Kurdish forces are even closer.
The city has huge strategic and propaganda value for both sides as capital of Isis operations in Iraq, and is the groups last stronghold in the country after it was pushed out of Ramadi and Falluja.
The battles to evict it from those cities were seen as precursor and preparation for retaking Mosul, with tough street fighting and Isis tactics including ruthless use of civilians as human shields and leaving streets and buildings laced with booby traps.
Far greater numbers of ordinary Iraqis are at risk in Mosul, however, with around 1.2 million civilians still in the city and another 800,000 in the countryside surrounding it, the Kurdish government estimates. Ramadi by contrast was virtually deserted by the time Iraqi forces and anti-Isis militias closed in, and Fallujah was estimated to have as few as 40,000 civilians left.
The Kurdish government planning documents describe three ways it believes the battle could play out. Even the most optimistic scenario, a rapid, successful campaign with most Mosul civilians simply bunkered down at home, is expected to trigger a minimum of 100,000 new refugees.
The bleakest forecast is for a battle that drags on for months with heavy street fighting, and sends more than a million people fleeing into Kurdistan.
The government deems the most likely outcome something between the two, with an offensive that drags out from weeks to months, a virtual siege on the city as major roads in and out are cut draining supplies of food, water and medicine and intensive fighting and airstrikes in the city.
That would create over 400,000 new refugees, the forecast warns, most arriving gradually as the fighting spread and intensified. Feeding and sheltering them would cost more than $275m for the first six months alone, and they are likely to arrive with little beyond the clothes on their backs.
It is highly likely that hundreds of thousands of people will be displaced, trapped, stranded, injured and killed. Those who will be able to escape will leave all of their possessions behind and will solely depend on humanitarian assistance, the briefing paper said.
More support from Baghdad or abroad will be needed to care for them, the report says repeatedly, and bluntly. We expect more assistance and contribution from the government of Iraq and partners in the international community, the briefing paper warned. Otherwise the region will be witnessing another dire humanitarian catastrophe which cannot be undone or reversed.