In Iraq, UN chief Guterres calls for protection of civilians

Baghdad (AFP) - UN chief Antonio Guterres called Thursday for protection of civilians to be the "absolute priority" as he visited Iraq, where hundreds of thousands are caught up in the battle for Mosul.

More than 200,000 people have fled west Mosul since the operation to oust the Islamic State group began last month, and officials and witnesses say that air strikes have taken a devastating toll on civilians who remained in the city.

The US-led coalition against IS -- which previously admitted that it "probably" played a role in Mosul civilian casualties -- on Thursday accused the jihadists of attempting to encourage strikes that would result in civilian deaths in the city.

Guterres said he would "focus on the dire humanitarian situation on the ground. Protection of civilians must be the absolute priority," in a post on his official Twitter account.

After his arrival in Baghdad, Guterres met Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, President Fuad Masum, parliament speaker Salim al-Juburi and Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

"Iraq is in the final stages of its fight against terrorism. We are strongly hopeful that the liberation of Mosul will soon be completed," Guterres said alongside Abadi, according to a copy of his remarks.

He later travelled to Arbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

Guterres's visit comes at a critical time for Iraq, which is fighting to retake Mosul in a battle that has sparked myriad humanitarian concerns.

Jaafari highlighted the issue of reconstruction in talks with Guterres -- a major challenge in areas that have been devastated by heavy fighting to retake them from IS.

"Iraq needs a plan similar to the Marshall Plan... to present assistance to Iraqis and support development and overcome the effect of war against (IS) terrorist gangs," Jaafari said, according to his office.

The Marshall Plan was a major US effort to help Western Europe recover from the devastation it suffered in World War II.

The UN said earlier this month that some 600,000 civilians were still in west Mosul, 400,000 of them trapped in siege-like conditions in the Old City.

Remaining in the city has posed deadly danger to residents, with the UN human rights office saying more than 300 civilians were killed in west Mosul in a little over a month.

- Jihadist numbers dwindling -

Gunfire, shelling, bombs and air strikes have all taken their toll.

The Iraqi government has sought to blame the jihadists for the deaths, and spokesman Colonel Joe Scrocca also accused IS of attempting to bait the coalition into carrying out strikes that would kill civilians in order "to take advantage of the public outcry and the terror."

Scrocca also said the number of jihadists remaining in Mosul has fallen significantly since Iraqi forces launched the operation to retake the city's west last month, from an estimated 2,000 at that time to less than half that now.

Huge numbers of residents have fled the fighting in west Mosul, with Iraqi authorities saying that more than 200,000 people have left the area since mid-February.

Camps have been set up around the city to provide shelter for the displaced, while others are staying with relatives, renting accommodation or residing in makeshift shelters or unfinished buildings.

IS overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014, but Iraqi forces backed by US-led air strikes have since regained much of the territory they lost.

The jihadists still pose a threat, however, even in the capital, and would continue to do so even if they no longer controlled significant territory.

Illustrating the danger, a suicide truck bombing claimed by IS killed at least 14 people at the main southern entrance to Baghdad on Wednesday evening.

Iraqi forces launched a major operation to retake Mosul in October, retaking its eastern side before setting their sites on the smaller but more densely populated west.

The fighting has inflicted heavy casualties on the Iraqi security forces, according to the head of US Central Command, General Joseph Votel.

Votel told a congressional committee that 490 Iraqi security personnel were killed and more than 3,000 wounded in the battle for east Mosul, while 284 have been killed and more than 1,600 wounded in fighting for the west.