Policy Brief on Civilian Protection in the Current Mosul Campaign

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Civilian protection has been a consistent challenge in the ongoing battle to retake portions of Iraq from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL, and Daesh in Arabic). Civilian deaths and injuries as well as the scale of physical destruction of cities such as Ramadi, Fallujah, Zumar, and Sinjar, and villages and towns across Iraq, highlight the challenges and costs of dislodging a group that embeds itself amongst civilians and rigs cities with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and booby traps.

Fighting in populated areas such as Mosul requires creative thinking by military planners involved in the air and ground campaign. Prime Minister Abadi has urged all Iraqi forces to protect civilians in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State and the anti-ISIS coalition has also stated their intent to minimize harm to civilians. Realizing these goals, requires the various militaries in Iraq fighting ISIS to constantly learn and improve tactics to both reduce civilian harm and to ensure maximum effectiveness of operations.

In late January, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), supported by the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, retook eastern Mosul from ISIS. After a three-week pause, ISF is now engaged in operations to retake western Mosul. The area’s dense population of 750,000-800,000, old buildings, and narrow streets will make the task difficult and places civilian men, women, and children at risk. ISIS is expected to put up a fierce fight and use civilians as human shields. Worryingly, some security officials believe that residents in western Mosul are more sympathetic to the group. Such perceptions can influence the conduct of security forces, which must be closely monitored to ensure respect for the principles of distinction and proportionality under international humanitarian law.

In addition to tactical challenges of urban warfare, major questions remain regarding how Mosul will be stabilized and governed once the city is retaken, how security forces will protect civilians from ISIS retaliation and sectarian revenge attacks, and how a still-fractured Iraq can approach the challenge of national reconciliation. Meanwhile, the new United States administration issued a Presidential Memorandum on January 28 requesting a new strategy for the defeat of ISIS to be delivered within 30 days.

This briefing paper assesses progress and challenges that remain to protect civilians and stabilize Iraq after the defeat of ISIS in Mosul and offers recommendations. The information in this briefing is based on interviews with civilians, humanitarian organizations, Iraqi and Kurdish government and security officials, as well as select coalition members currently in Iraq.