Civilians Face Heightened Danger As Iraqi Forces Fight To Retake Mosul
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Iraqi forces continue to take areas in and around Mosul from the so-called Islamic State. That fighting has put civilians in the city, perhaps a million people, in great danger. And it's raised questions about advice the government gave civilians at the start of the offensive, when they told people in Mosul stay in their homes. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from northern Iraq.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: A helicopter passes over a field clinic east of Mosul where 34-year-old Muhannad Shabib sits outside, wrapped in heavy blankets. He's an Iraqi soldier from Baghdad.
MUHANNAD SHABIB: (Speaking Arabic).
KENYON: He was fighting in an east Mosul neighborhood when a bullet from an ISIS sniper hit him in the back. Overall, he says the fighting's going well. The army's still advancing.
SHABIB: (Speaking Arabic).
KENYON: But Shabib says it would be going much better if there weren't so many civilians in the battle zone. If they were gone, ISIS couldn't use them as human shields and the military could control territory faster.
KENYON: As the staff fixes lunch at the clinic, Major Mohammad Abdullah says he is seeing more wounded civilians these days, most caught in explosions of some kind.
MAJOR MOHAMMAD ABDULLAH: Explosion, and the most by the mortar. The ISIS, now using when they escape from the area, using the sniper and the mortars.
KENYON: The major's radio squawks updates from the front lines. There's a knock at the door, and a soldier delivers a spare engine part for an armored ambulance, one of three attacked recently by a suicide car bomber in Mosul.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD CRYING)
KENYON: Civilians who make it to a camp for the displaced say families initially stayed in Mosul because the government told them to. That guidance is now being questioned. As the fighting's grown worse, ISIS snipers have begun targeting civilians who do try to flee. A man who gives his name as Abu Zachariya says in his family's case, the perils of staying finally exceeded the dangers of fleeing.
ABU ZACHARIYA: (Speaking Arabic).
KENYON: He says, "we had ISIS on one side and the army on the other. And we decided we're dead if we stay, dead if we go." So they made a break for it on foot and were lucky to make it out in one piece. Hospitals in the nearby city of Erbil are filled to capacity with those who weren't so fortunate. An ambulance pulls away from West Hospital so another can arrive, carrying wounded soldiers and civilians. Emergency room doctors quickly decide who can be treated here and who needs to get to Baghdad.
Upstairs, 16-year-old Abdulrahman Saleh lives with his face turned to the wall. His hands are loosely tied to the bed railings. His father says that's to keep him from picking at the bandages that cover the place where his right eye used to be.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Arabic).
KENYON: He explains that his son was playing on the edge of their town south of Mosul with his brother and two friends, also brothers. A mine exploded and the other three were killed, and Abdulrahman was left with one eye, shrapnel wounds across his body and no desire to speak to anyone at the moment.
Downstairs, a sudden bustle of activity illustrates another reason the government isn't eager to see a mass evacuation from Mosul. A young man is hustled out of the hospital in handcuffs by a team of security men. An officer motions for a reporter to turn off his recorder and says he's a suspected ISIS collaborator who slipped into Erbil among the wounded. He says there are, quote, "many of them making similar attempts."
Authorities fear a huge flow of civilians could mean more such infiltrations. So for now, despite increasing hardship and danger, the advice to Mosul residents remains the same - stay in your homes. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Erbil, northern Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.