The United Nations expressed concerns about the offensive against ISIS in West Mosul, as it could displace up to 400,000 civilians and involve a siege in the densely populated old city.
The United States is providing air and ground support to Iraqi and Kurdish forces trying to dislodge the hardline group from Mosul, captured in 2014.
The offensive paused last month after the capture of the districts lying east of the Tigris river that bisects the city.
Western Mosul contains the old city center, with its ancient souks, Grand Mosque and most government administrative buildings.
Preparations are underway to launch the offensive on the western side, which is expected be more difficult because of the density of the population and the narrow streets and alleyways through which armored vehicles cannot pass.
“This is a different battle with enormous implications for civilians,” Lise Grande, the United Nations’ Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, said. “We have to face the possibility of a siege in the old city.”
The United Nations estimates that up to 800,000 civilians are living in western districts. Grande said up to half of them could flee their homes “in a worst case”, twice the displacement seen in eastern Mosul.
According to the U.N., nearly 200,000 people have been displaced since the October 17 start of the operation to retake Iraq’s second-largest city.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that 46,000 of them have since returned to their homes.
She said there were currently 20 displacement camps and emergency sites around the city and added that the U.N. and its partners were “rushing to construct new sites south of Mosul.”
The government and humanitarian agencies are constructing emergency sites south of the city and stockpiling key supplies.
Food and fuel supplies are dwindling in the west, markets and shops have closed, running water is scarce and electricity in many neighborhoods is either intermittent or cut off, the United Nations said in a statement.
Few commercial supplies have reached Mosul since the main road to Syria was cut at the end of November.
“We are extremely concerned about the rapid deterioration of the conditions in west Mosul,” Grande said.
“The battle hasn’t started but already there is a humanitarian crisis,” Grande said in the statement.
UN missions paused
A suicide bombing at a restaurant in east Mosul on February 10th killed 14 people and wounded 39, the second of its kind in the four-month-old Mosul battle.
The attack fractured a sense of safety and relief that many residents felt after Iraqi forces pushed the jihadists out of their neighborhoods in months of heavy street fighting.
“Based on reports of insecurity, the U.N. decided that we would not send missions into eastern parts of Mosul until we reassess security conditions,” said Lise Grande, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq.
“This has now been done and we expect to re-engage as soon as possible, hopefully within the next day or so.”
Islamic State militants who retreated across the Tigris river to western districts also regularly target civilian areas under government control in the east with mortars and grenades dropped from drones.
The U.N. has said that civilian casualty rates remain high in eastern Mosul as ISIS mortar attacks from the western side of the Tigris River are still able to reach neighborhoods in the city’s east.