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Chaos as civilians flee anti-IS offensive near Iraq's Mosul

Thousands housed in stadium in Kurdish area amid reports of slow progress by Iraqi army and allied forces in campaign to retake Mosul
A man holds the body of his daughter, killed in clashes between IS and their opponents (AFP)

Thousands of desperate civilians on Sunday fled fierce fighting south of the Iraqi city of Mosul, as army forces opened a new front against the Islamic State (IS) group, which has its de facto capital in the city.

Families, crammed into the backs of pickup trucks, sometimes bringing dead and wounded with them, emerged from the dust after crossing the frontline where they were met by Kurdish forces.

Iraqi army troops and allied paramilitary fighters on Thursday launched a major offensive aimed at retaking the northern Nineveh province, the capital of which Mosul is the main hub of IS in Iraq.

The forces have been advancing from their base in Makhmour towards the town of Qayyarah, about 60 kilometres south of Mosul.

“There were recently two liberated villages by the Iraqi army supported by Peshmerga. Estimated numbers of people have been displaced is 2,000 and they are now in used tents in Makhmour,” Hoshang Mohammed, director general of the Joint Crisis Coordination Centre (KRG), told Middle East Eye.

Growing numbers of civilians have been fleeing the advance to Makhmour, where they are being assisted by Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

"So far we have received around 3,000 people, and the numbers are growing every day," Ali Khodeir Ahmed, a member of Nineveh's provincial council, told AFP in Makhmour.

"But there are no services offered to them by the Iraqi government. We have to put them up in a stadium in Makhmour," he said.

However, the conditions are said to be poor, with overcrowding already happening even as more people continue to stream in. 

“The Kurdish Regional Government has contracted a company and requested financial and technical assistance from the UN agencies and international NGOs to help with the construction of the camp because there is already no place in the city and the current camps are already overcrowded," a Kurdish official told MEE on the condition of anonymity. 

He said that while Erbil and Baghdad are cooperating, no help has come from the Iraqi capital although limited aid delivery was being provided by local NGOs and the UN. 

“We have requested help from everyone to help these people, and in the current financial crisis we cannot provide any assistance. We don’t have any money,” the official said.

The Iraqi government has described the advance as the first phase of what is expected to be a long and difficult operation to retake Mosul, the country's second city and the largest urban centre in IS's cross-border "caliphate". In the future the Mosul offensive might displace 250,000 to 750,000 people, Iraqi officials have said.

The offensive has seen Kurdish Peshmerga fighters join forces with the Iraqi army and some local tribes, as well as more than 200 US ground combat troops who are taking an active role in the campaign.

The combined force is battling against defensive measures like IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and snipers put in place by IS to fortify their Iraqi stronghold.

“Islamic State is not strong anymore,” Arif Hussein Abas, a local Peshmerga officer told MEE.

“They just fight with snipers, IEDs and suicide bombers. That's why the war is going slowly – they cannot face to fight anymore.”

In the desert west of Makhmour, dust storms were whipped up by the line of vehicles fleeing IS-held territory, including a pickup carrying four women and 10 children in the back.

'Entire families have died'

A bearded man in a yellow dishdasha, or traditional robe, emerged from the dust, holding the body of a young girl wrapped in a blanket. 

"She is dead, she is dead," he cried, his face caked in dust.

His daughter, whose back was riddled with shrapnel from shells that rained down on their escape, was covered in blood.

"Some entire families have died," the father said.

The battle has so far focused on four villages west of Makhmour. Qayyarah, an area that includes a former air base and an oil facility, lies to the west, on the other bank of the Tigris River.

Smain Nuweis fled the village of Kharbardan with his family of seven squeezed into the back of his car.

"We have seen a lot of suffering," the 28-year-old said. "And it got worse now with the shelling."

"Daesh will not allow the people to flee, they want them to stay," said Nuweis, using an Arabic term for IS.

The provincial council official urged the government to do more for the flow of displaced people, who were given little more than water upon reaching the Peshmerga.

"We need to open camps and provide urgent assistance. These people's situation is very bad, they were barely able to take any belongings with them," said Ali Khodeir Ahmed.

More than 3.3 million people have been displaced by conflict in Iraq since the start of 2014, according to figures from the United Nations.

IS seized control of large parts of Iraq in 2014, with Iraqi forces collapsing in the face of a lightning advance. Backed by a US-led coalition, Iraq has been slowly clawing back territory from the militants in recent months.

- Additional reporting by Wladimir van Wilgenburg in Makhmour

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