U.N. officials fear an attack on Mosul will displace 1.5 million people

A planned offensive to retake the city of Mosul from Islamic State insurgents, perhaps as soon as April, could send more than 1.5 million people fleeing, a senior United Nations humanitarian relief official warned Tuesday.

More than 2 million people already were displaced last summer when Islamic State militants captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, then swept through northern and central Iraq.

Syed Jaffer Hussain, the World Health Organization’s representative in Iraq, told reporters that the planned offensive was likely to send hundreds of thousands of people from Mosul into Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. A similar warning was issued Tuesday by the International Committee of the Red Cross in a call for preparations to be made for dealing with the humanitarian fallout from the fighting.

“The broadening of the conflict to populated areas along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers will create more humanitarian needs. If major cities like Mosul come under fire again, thousands more people will have to flee,” the ICRC said. “Because security conditions are so uncertain, many areas remain out of reach for humanitarian organizations, and large numbers of people will be without help when they need it most,” it added.

Hussain, who is based in Baghdad, was in Geneva along with WHO country representatives from Syria, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic to brief diplomats from 57 donor countries on why they need more than $1 billion to support on-going aid efforts in the four countries.

Hussain said the expected Mosul campaign – a U.S. military briefer told reporters in Washington last week the offensive would involve 25,000 Iraqi troops and begin in April or May – would be sure to add Iraq’s humanitarian burden, which already includes more than 2.2 million people who’ve fled their homes and more than 5 million whose shelter, food and health needs are barely being met. He said that the turmoil that Iraqis have lived with for two decades has “reduced to a large extent” the ability of the country’s health system to respond.

He pointed out that 400,000 people had fled their homes just between November and January.

He gave a bleak accounting of the country’s health facilities, region by region: “In Salahhuddin, 50 percent of health facilities are non-functional. In Anbar and Ninevah 20 percent are also non-functional, and in Sinjar, only 20 percent.”

Forty-five percent of the country’s medical workers have been displaced, according to a WHO assessment of the country by WHO. That displacement is especially hard in Mosul, surrounding Ninevah province as well as Anbar, the province west of Baghdad, the assessment said.

A senior U.N. official told McClatchy that the U.N. has received credible reports that the Islamic State recently executed a number of doctors in Anbar province.

Hussain told McClatchy the flight of doctors from the country that began with the U.S. invasion in 2003 continues. Iraq now has about 16,400 physicians, fewer than half the 34,000 believed to have been there prior to the 2003 invasion.