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Iraqi Efforts To Take Mosul From ISIS Could Trigger Humanitarian Crisis


Iraq and an American-led coalition are gearing up to take back the city of Mosul from the Islamic State. The fighting is expected to be fierce. The Pentagon says ISIS is putting bombs in buildings and along roads. It's digging trenches around the city to be filled with burning oil to create black smoke to shield the city from aerial bombing. It's predicted that as many as 700,000 Iraqis will be trapped there or be trying to flee Mosul. So aid agencies are also gearing up to avoid a disaster.

The International Organization for Migration's chief of mission in Iraq is Thomas Weiss. He joined me from Washington.

Welcome to the program.

THOMAS WEISS: Thank you so much, Renee. Good to be here.

MONTAGNE: You have managed to get, in recent months, up close to Mosul without actually being able to go into the city. What did you see?

WEISS: Yeah, we were 6, 7 kilometers away from the front line. We have seen massive destruction of villages, of homesteads, of infrastructure of course, of essential public services. And we anticipate that people getting out of Mosul will also be in dire need of lifesaving humanitarian assistance.

MONTAGNE: There must be scenarios that you're working with because different waves of people coming out will involve different needs.

WEISS: Absolutely. You are correct. And based on the government of Iraq's plans and our own coordination, we are basically envisaging that potential internally displaced persons coming out of Mosul will be settled in so-called emergency sites, which are basic camps that can be erected relatively quickly to offer a certain, like, minimum standard of services in terms of shelter, in terms of essential wash services, etc., etc.

MONTAGNE: So one might see land filled with tents for tens - maybe even hundreds of thousands of people.

WEISS: Well, Mosul is coming upon us probably very quickly, which basically means that we have to act quickly and dirtily now. It's essential that those emergency sites be hammered out of the ground as quickly as manageable and then, step by step, if time allows and funding essentially allows, we will then be upgrading these facilities in order to make them more humanitarian standard compliant.

MONTAGNE: Are you going to have enough time if this is just weeks off?

WEISS: Renee, a straightforward response to you is not. We will not have enough time unfortunately.

MONTAGNE: Well, are you far enough ahead and well enough funded that you feel comfortable that this will not be a humanitarian disaster?

WEISS: Renee, probably not - probably not. This is one of the lessons learned of our work in Iraq. It never turns out as you expect it actually. I think everybody has been taken by surprise over the last two and a half years by the sheer amplitude of internal, mass forced displacement. We have to see once it is starting on what exactly are going to be the expressions on the ground.

MONTAGNE: What would be, for you all, the best-case scenario?

WEISS: For the inhabitants of Mosul to be able to stay where they are now and to be able to - once their city has been liberated - to regain their lives, to regain their dignity and to be able to just continue to live as normal people with normal aspirations.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you for joining us.

WEISS: Thank you so much, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Thomas Weiss is based in Baghdad, and he is the chief of mission for Iraq for the International Organization for Migration. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.