In Iraq, UN chief calls for protection of civilians
REUTERS photoU.N. chief Antonio Guterres called on March 30 for protection of civilians to be the “absolute priority” as he visited Iraq, where hundreds of thousands are caught up in the battle for Mosul.
More than 200,000 people have fled west Mosul since the operation to oust the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group began last month, and officials and witnesses say that air strikes have taken a devastating toll on civilians who remained in the city.
“Just arrived in Iraq to focus on the dire humanitarian situation on the ground. Protection of civilians must be the absolute priority,” the U.N. chief said on his official Twitter account.
After his arrival in Baghdad, Guterres met President Fuad Masum, parliament speaker Salim al-Juburi and Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
He was also due to hold talks with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi before flying to Arbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Guterres’s visit comes at a critical time for Iraq, which is fighting to retake Mosul in a battle that has sparked myriad humanitarian concerns.
Jaafari highlighted the issue of reconstruction in talks with Guterres -- a major challenge in areas that have been devastated by heavy fighting to retake them from ISIL.
“Iraq needs a plan similar to the Marshall Plan... to present assistance to Iraqis and support development and overcome the effect of war against terrorist gangs,” Jaafari said, according to his office.
The Marshall Plan was a major U.S. effort to help Western Europe recover from the devastation it suffered in World War II.
Widespread displacement is another issue, with Iraqi authorities saying that more than 200,000 people have fled west Mosul since February.
Camps have been set up around the city to provide shelter for the displaced, while others are staying with relatives, renting accommodation or residing in makeshift shelters or unfinished buildings.
Displacement from Mosul has not reached the worst-case scenario of a million or more people that had been feared, but that has come at the cost of huge numbers of civilians being trapped in the middle of the battle.
The U.N. said earlier this month that some 600,000 civilians were still in west Mosul, 400,000 of them trapped in siege-like conditions in the Old City.
Remaining in the city has posed deadly danger to residents -- the UN human rights office said that more than 300 civilians were killed in west Mosul in a little over a month.
Gunfire, shelling, bombs and air strikes have all taken their toll.
The U.S.-led coalition carrying out strikes against ISIL said it had “probably” played a role in civilian deaths in west Mosul, while the Iraqi government has sought to blame the casualties on the jihadists.
Both the U.N. and Amnesty International have called on Iraqi forces and the coalition to do more to protect civilians in Mosul.
Amnesty’s Donatella Rovera said field research in east Mosul -- which was recaptured from ISIL in January -- showed “an alarming pattern of U.S.-led coalition air strikes which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside.”
“The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces... have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law,” she said.