Iraqi priest has “confidence and hope" in Mosul’s liberation

Fr Paul Thabit Mekko talks about the sense of expectation among the refugees from Mosul and the Nineveh plain. A small group has already visited their homes in the eastern liberated part of the city. Security in the liberated areas is necessary, so is a new form of administration and management. In 2016, Daesh lost a quarter of the territory it once controlled.

Erbil (AsiaNews) – Fr Paul Thabit Mekko runs the ‘Eyes of Erbil’ refugee camp on the outskirts of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where hundreds of thousands of Christians, Muslims and Yazidis found refuge following the rise of the Islamic State group.

The "liberation" of the eastern sector of Mosul and the loss of territory by the Islamic State (IS) are “positive” and raise "confidence and hope" among the Christian refugees who are waiting and hoping to "return to their homes," he told AsiaNews.

Still, many are waiting to "see real change" and "fundamental skepticism" about the outcome of the fighting lingers.

The camp managed by the 40-year-old Chaldean priest from Mosul is home to 140 families, about 700 people, divided in 46 small units. It also has a facility to store and distribute aid, as well as a kindergarten and a school.

"Most of the refugees from Mosul and the Nineveh plain thank the army and the militias for what they are doing,” the priest said. “Now they seem to be a bit more relaxed and calm.”

“A small group just went to the liberated part of ​​Mosul, to check out their homes,” he added. “We brought out an elderly Christian woman who lived with a Muslim family for more than two years right in Mosul. Perhaps Daesh militiamen were never interested in her for her age . . . She was old and meant nothing to them."

Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city, the largest in northern Iraq, and has been under IS control for two and half years.  Since they launched their offensive, government forces have "made significant progress" in its eastern districts but IS resistance is strong. By and large, east Mosul is now free and under the "full control" of government troops.

Speaking at a press conference in Bartalla, a town east of Mosul, Staff General Talib al-Sheghati, who heads the Counter-Terrorism Service, announced "the liberation... of the left bank".

Sheghati added however that whilst the east of the city could be considered under government control, some work remained to be done to flush out the last Jihadi holdouts.

The presence of civilians in combat zones has complicated the advance since they are often used as human shield by IS fighters

According to IHS Markit, a UK-based defence and security information handling service, the Islamic State group (also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh) has lost about a quarter of the territory it held in the summer of 2014, giving up almost 18,000 sq km. Its territory now covers some 60,400 sq km, just less than the size of Florida,

IHS Markit analysts expect Iraqi government forces to recapture Mosul by the middle of the year, adding that 23 per cent reduction in IS-held territory in 2016 followed a 14% loss in 2015.

Indeed, IS suffered major territorial losses last year, “including key areas vital for the group's governance project," said Columb Strack, senior analyst and head of the IHS Conflict Monitor.

In addition to Mosul, “government forces are now clearing the Christian town of Tel Kaif, which now has a Muslim majority," said Fr Paul Thabit Mekko. And the first moves are underway to clear "Qaraqosh, Bartalla, and Karemles where we go every day to see the progress."

Many other initiatives are underway, but "there is no overall reconstruction plan for the area. We are getting ready, but it will hard to restart without outside help from international organisations, governments and the Church.” 

Christians from Mosul and the Nineveh plain "want to return to their homes, to their land," but "the situation remains difficult,” the clergyman noted.

“Security remains an issue and the region’s administrative future must be defined.” In fact, once the IS threat is overcome, "we hope we can find a new way to live together and share a serious project of coexistence, enjoying services without tensions between religions and ethnic groups. A new vision of the area’s administration and management is needed.”