In an unexpectedly short offensive, Iraqi forces, bolstered by U.S. air power and Iranian-backed Shiite militias, retook the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah from ISIS yesterday, barely a month after they started. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi says that the way is now clear for an offensive against Mosul, ISIS’s last redoubt in Iraq. Such action is long overdue, but the U.S. government needs to call time out.
First, there must be a careful review of a humanitarian disaster that accompanied the successful Fallujah military operation. Iraqi and international authorities must not treat refugee-aid planning as an afterthought in Mosul, as they evidently did in Fallujah. A humanitarian failure in Iraq’s second-largest city could mean a massive loss of life among its Sunni civilians and have far-reaching consequences for the Christians and Yazidis, refugees from genocide, who used to live in Mosul’s surrounding towns and hope to return there once the provincial capital is liberated.
After the Fallujah offensive began in earnest this month aid agencies sounded an alarm: Tens of thousands of people fleeing the city lacked basic necessities and were sleeping out in the open desert. They had no respite from 117-degree temperatures and fierce sand storms. The team of the International Committee of the Red Cross tweeted that it was some of the “harshest weather” they had ever encountered. The New York Times correspondent on the scene described the refugees’ conditions as “apocalyptic.”
The main problem was that the Iraqi government and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had neglected to develop and carry out an adequate humanitarian plan for them. “It’s a complete disaster,” said Jeremy Courtney, founder of the Preemptive Love Coalition, an aid group. “The government and the international organizations failed to do what they needed to do.”
Immediately upon fleeing, the bulk of Fallujah’s refugees confronted grossly inadequate provisions of water, food, medicine, sanitation, and shelter. At least 85,000 managed to escape, according to the International Migration Office. But the authorities miscalculated the civilians to number between only 30,000 to 50,000, and preparations were made for far fewer than that. The UNHCR had set up only four camps, which could accommodate only 16,830 people, instead of the 20 camps that were needed. The press interviewed a woman sharing a mattress with twelve others, including her four-month-old child, who was without baby formula. Thousands suffered dehydration because they were rationed only three liters of water a day instead of the usual ten. A single latrine served 1,800 women in one of the camps. Sacks of flour and rice were distributed, but there were no stoves or fuel to cook them with.
Even after the shortages became horrifyingly obvious and internationally publicized, the responsible Iraqi and U.N. institutions were notably dilatory. Half a week passed before Iraqi authorities ordered more camps, dispatched a fleet of water trucks, and requested a medical plan from the nation’s health ministry. After emergency appeals went out, last Tuesday the U.S. State Department designated $20 million more in aid for these refugees, and the U.N. chipped in an additional $17.5 million.
By Sunday, June 26, 1,800 ISIS militants were dead. Others had melted in among the refugees, and the fighting had all but stopped. Iraq’s military commander announced that Fallujah was “fully liberated.” With most of the town’s neighborhoods reportedly still intact, there is hope that, after the area is swept clean of land mines, many of the former residents may soon be able to return home.
A catastrophe has been averted this time. But Mosul will pose much greater military and humanitarian challenges. With respect to humanitarian aid, the Iraqi government and UNHCR have demonstrated that they are not up to the monumental task of providing it at adequate levels.
Mosul’s refugee flow may be ten or even 20 times the size of Fallujah’s, with population estimates between 1 and 2 million. The UNHCR expects between 600,000 and 1.2 million of them to become displaced in an offensive. Aid agencies are already staggering under the burden of caring for the 3.3 million displaced so far in Iraq. If planning again falls short, this time in Mosul, a refugee exodus that is orders of magnitude greater than Fallujah’s could overwhelm any last-minute efforts at emergency solutions.
Mosul presents another problem that must be guarded against. Planning for the placement of escape corridors and camps for Mosul’s civilians must take into account the right to return of the genocide-designated minorities from Mosul’s neighboring towns and villages. Abandoned when ISIS swept through two summers ago, their homes now stand vacant and undefended. Iraqi Christian leaders warn that, without an appropriate plan, Nineveh’s largest town, Qaraqosh, formerly home to 50,000 Christians and only 20 miles outside Mosul, together with scores of more-distant Christian, Yazidi, and ethnic Shiite towns, could be repopulated by this massive new refugee wave from Mosul. If Mosul is severely damaged in the fight, it is easy to see how the outlying areas could turn into permanent resettlement sites. The religious minorities who fled them to escape genocide are themselves now refugees, living in shipping containers and tents, in Kurdistan and elsewhere, and they would be prevented from ever going home.
A Fallujah offensive had been anticipated for the past two and a half years, during which the city was under ISIS control. How, then, from the minute they were liberated, could tens of thousands of its civilians have been put at risk for illness and death from deprivation of basic necessities? Did the city’s Sunni identity factor into the Iraqi government’s negligence to take adequate measures on behalf of religious minorities? Was sheer incompetence to blame? Or was it a breakdown of coordination between relief and military authorities? The State Department needs to get to the bottom of this failure and to resolve it before Mosul, an even larger Sunni city, is retaken. Until these humanitarian problems are addressed, the U.S. military should be prevented from participating in any Mosul offensive.
— Nina Shea is the director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.