U.N. concerned about 'collective punishment' of Arabs in Kirkuk

By Samia Nakhoul and Michael Georgy ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - The United Nations voiced concern on Tuesday that Kurdish authorities had forced 250 Sunni Arab families to leave Kirkuk after an Islamic State attack on the Kurdish-controlled city, saying the move could be seen as collective punishment. Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, also said that the United Nations expects a mass exodus from Mosul - perhaps within the next few days - as Iraqi army prepares to storm the northern Iraqi city which is still home to over a million people. In the worst case scenario, Grande said it was also possible that Islamic State fighters who have controlled Mosul for more than two years could resort to "rudimentary chemical weapons" to hold back the impending assault. In Kirkuk, Grande said the United Nations was informed that two days after the Islamic State attack, Kurdish authorities announced they would be expelling Sunni Arabs - who have already been displaced by the conflict with Islamic State. "Just a few hours after the announcement we understand that around 250 civilian families felt they had no choice but to leave," she said in an interview at a hotel in Erbil, about 75 km (40 miles) east of Mosul. Authorities in Kirkuk suspect the Islamic State fighters who attacked Kirkuk on Friday were helped by Sunni sleeper cells. Grande said the United Nations had no evidence that the families had helped Islamic State but the timing of the move suggested it was used as a pretext to force them out. "The United Nations is very concerned about any action that could be understood as collective punishment," she said, adding that she was worried that the move could also set a precedent in a region riven with ethnic and sectarian divisions. Kirkuk is the most disputed area of Iraq because of its complex population mix. Kurds took full control of the province in 2014 after the Iraqi army retreated from an Islamic State takeover of much of the north of the country, and Arabs complain that Kurds have since flooded to Kirkuk to tilt the demographic balance in the event of a referendum on the status of the city. At the same time, over 300,000 Sunni Arabs have sought refuge in Kurdish-ruled Kirkuk from the Islamic State jihadists. ETHNIC SENSITIVITIES Kurdish officials have denied allegations they are trying to change northern Iraq's demographics by seizing land. "Those who are displaced have the right to decide when they return and where they are going to live. They cannot be expelled, this is why we are so worried of this particular precedent," Grande said. She said the displaced people left Kirkuk and headed toward the nearby provinces of Salahuddin, Anbar and Diyala. Aside from taking on Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq's Shi'ite-led government also faces the delicate task of ensuring that any victory does not spark sectarian tensions in the predominantly Sunni city and elsewhere. Iraq has been destabilized by a mostly Sunni and Shi'ite sectarian war, and friction between Kurds and Arabs have deepened tensions. The humanitarian impact of the anticipated assault on Mosul is also a major concern, with the United Nations bracing for what could be the biggest and most complex crisis in 2016 once the fighting for the city begins. "Our expectation about when the major attack on Mosul itself will occur, it could be within the next days," said Grande. About 7,500 people have fled Mosul and towns and villages around it since the campaign began, said Grande. "We are very concerned because we estimate that there are more than a million civilians inside the city," she said. "And any time there is a major attack there could be a major outflow of people." Grande and Iraqi officials fear Islamic State could turn Mosul residents into human shields, or force them to move toward advancing Iraqi troops. There are already some signs of that. Some Iraqis who have fled the Mosul region say large numbers of their relatives have been taken as human shields or hostages as pressure mounts on Islamic State, which recently lost the cities of Falluja and Ramadi. "We have seen many families who leave are headed by women," said Grande. "This does raise the question of where the men are." (Reporting by Samia Nakhoul and Michael Georgy; Editing by Dominic Evans)