The International Organization for Migration expressed concern Thursday that civilians may be trapped inside the Iraqi city of Mosul after a fourth key bridge was put out of use in a US airstrike, leaving just one to link the east to the west.
The strike was part of an ongoing Iraqi-led operation to free the city from more than two years of brutal rule by ISIS militants. Only the city’s oldest bridge remains.
The bridges were “disabled in order to reduce Da’esh freedom of movement and limit their ability to resupply and reinforce fighters,” said Col. John L. Dorrian, spokesman for the US mission in the Mosul operation, using another name for ISIS.
The coalition coordinates all strikes with the Iraqi government ahead of time, Dorrian explained.
“The implications of disabling or damaging civilian infrastructure are carefully considered before action is taken,” he said, adding that the bridges will be easily repaired after ISIS has been driven out.
Iraqi-led forces had surrounded the entire city by Wednesday, an alliance of paramilitary groups said, in the tightest chokehold forces have had on ISIS fighters since the operation began.
Taking out the bridges enables Iraqi-led forces to contain ISIS fighters further, but it also means the movement of civilians is restricted.
“We’re concerned that the hundreds of thousands of people who are stuck, hoping for a chance to flee during a lull in the battle, will be trapped. Bridges are crucial for getting out of the city center,” IOM spokesman Joel Millman told CNN.
“We want people to be able to leave safely.”
Dorrian said the greatest threat to civilians leaving Mosul is ISIS, “who have shown no reluctance whatsoever about endangering or killing civilians in their efforts to slow the Iraqi advance.”
Mosul’s civilians were told by Iraqi officials they should stay in their homes as forces prepared to enter the city — a crown jewel in ISIS’ envisaged caliphate — where a bloody battle was widely expected.
Many were also too afraid to flee, with ISIS snipers and improvised explosive devices positioned around the city border.
But now, as clashes have continued in the city since forces entered on November 3, many are afraid to stay, desperately looking for a way out.
69,000 people displaced
On Wednesday, paramilitary groups backing Iraqi forces said they had finally cut the main route between Mosul and the ISIS capital of Raqqa in Syria.
ISIS had been able to send resources from Raqqa — including fighters, suicide squads and explosives — to Mosul through this route. It was also used as an escape route for senior ISIS members and their families, who fled Mosul for Syria, civilians have told CNN.
Currently, around 69,000 people are displaced by the Mosul operation, the IOM reports, and aid agencies say the humanitarian situation is getting desperate.
In refugee camps on the city’s outskirts, agencies are scrambling to distribute food, water and clothing.
“We have temporary kitchens in our camps, and in one night alone we might get 10,000 hot meals out,” said Joe Cropp from The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
“This is one of the worst humanitarian crises of the year. We are now just starting to see the situation in a city that has been closed off for the past two years and the needs are starting to become apparent,” he said.
“Families have been unable to access clean drinking water, or enough food, children haven’t been going to school — the education system was essentially closed down.”
More than 100,000 forces have taken part in the Iraqi-led coalition in the operation to take Mosul, including ethnic and religious minority groups, such as Shia, Kurdish and Christian groups.
Iraqi officials have said that only government forces actually entered Mosul by ground.