ICRC steps up aid for Iraq amid fears of post-Mosul sectarian strife

By Stephanie Nebehay GENEVA (Reuters) - As Iraqi families begin streaming out of villages in the path of an army offensive to retake Mosul from Islamic State, some fear that the onslaught may stoke future sectarian strife in the volatile region, a senior Red Cross official said on Thursday. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is prepared to provide aid to 800,000 people who could flee the looming battle for Mosul, including against any use of chemical weapons, said Patrick Hamilton, the ICRC's deputy director for the Near and Middle East. Islamic State militants have used banned chemical agents previously against Iraqi Kurdish forces. Hamilton toured northern Iraq this month, overseeing ICRC operations before the offensive launched on Monday by government troops, allied regional Kurdish fighters and Shi'ite Muslim militia to oust Islamic State from Iraq's second biggest city. "What struck me was obviously the sense of angst, of fear, of what was to come," he told Reuters in an interview. "Both for the immediate future in terms of this offensive and what that might entail. But also for the longer-term future, what Iraq itself might look like post-Mosul, and what will be the fate of these various communities that make up Iraq and how they will find or try to find a way forward together." Mosul, from which the ultra-hardline Islamic State proclaimed a "caliphate" two years ago, is majority Sunni Muslim, whereas Iraqi government forces are Shi'ite-dominated. The area around Mosul is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse parts of Iraq, and Western countries backing the offensive are concerned that communities feel safe as the government forces advance, to avoid revenge attacks or ethnic and sectarian bloodletting as fighters are driven out. Fears of sectarian retribution have risen among Iraqi officials and aid workers after word emerged that Shi'ite irregulars will help storm the smaller city of Hawija in northern Iraq as part of the offensive. "Whilst obviously we remain very concerned about what's going on in and around Mosul, we shouldn't forget as well that there are offensives being launched to try to retake Hawija," Hamilton said. "There is going to be or there is already a significant battle taking place over the area of Hawija where there are some 200,000 to 300,000 civilians also faced with being trapped between front lines." The offensive to seize back Mosul is going faster than planned, Iraq's prime minister said on Thursday. Asked about the ICRC's dialogue with Shi'ite militia on the rules of war, Hamilton said: "As with the Iraqi state forces, Kurdish forces as well, we have been obviously trying to promote a sense for and an understanding of their responsibilities with regards to respecting international humanitarian law." This meant sparing civilians and only using force against military targets that is proportional and discriminate, he said. Hamilton said the ICRC was poised to deliver emergency assistance over the weeks and months ahead, "be it food, non-food relief, water relief as well as obviously medical care". The Geneva-based agency also has warehouses full of "war-wounded kits" containing emergency medical equipment, each sufficient for 50 patients. The ICRC deploys 900 staff in Iraq, its third largest operation worldwide, with an annual budget of 120 million Swiss francs ($121.07 million) ($1 = 0.9912 Swiss francs) (This story removes reference to Islamic State in paragraph 2 and makes clear in paragraph 3 that the group has used chemical weapons in the past) (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Mark Heinrich)