Up to 20,000 civilians are trapped in the last Daesh terrorist group-held areas in Mosul's Old City, which Iraqi forces are battling to retake, a senior U.N. official said yesterday.
More than eight months since the start of the operation to retake Mosul, Daesh has gone from fully controlling the city to holding a small pocket of territory on the west bank of the Tigris River. But the fighting against the last Daesh holdouts is heavy, and civilians caught in the middle of the battle are in "extreme danger," U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq Lise Grande told AFP.
"Our estimate at this stage is that in the final pockets of the Old City, there could be as many as 15,000 civilians, possibly even as high as 20,000. "The people that are still trapped inside of these pockets are in terrible condition," facing shortages of food, she said.
"They're in extreme danger from bombardment, from artillery crossfire. The [Daesh] fighters that are still there are still directly targeting civilians if they try and leave."
The battle has pushed 915,000 to flee their homes, nearly 700,000 of whom are still displaced. "We exceeded our worst case scenario more than a month ago. In our very worst-case scenario, we thought that 750,000 people would flee," Grande said.
The damage caused by the fighting in west Mosul -- and the cost of addressing it -- is huge. There are "44 residential neighborhoods in western Mosul. Six are nearly completely destroyed... Twenty-two neighborhoods are moderately damaged and 16 are lightly damaged," Grande said.
Based on a preliminary assessment, the first phase of "stabilization" in west Mosul -- which includes basic services, infrastructure, housing, education and police stations -- will cost $707 million. That is nearly double the expected figure, "because the level of damage in western Mosul is far higher than what we feared it would be," she said.
Tensions have escalated in the final days of the battle for Mosul, as suicide bombings carried out mostly by women hiding among groups of civilians target Iraqi forces closing in on the last few hundred square meters (yards) of territory Daesh controls. At least one such attack struck Wednesday. The fight for Mosul is taking a "devastating" toll on the Old City's residents, Doctors Without Borders said in a statement Wednesday. Only a "fraction ... who require medical attention are receiving it, and many are dying on the battlefield," the humanitarian organization warned.
Daesh overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014, but Iraqi forces backed by U.S.-led air strikes and other support have since regained much of the ground they lost. The recapture of Mosul will not however mark the end of the war against Daesh. The militant group holds territory elsewhere in Iraq as well as in neighboring Syria, and has been able to carry out attacks in government-held areas.