Reuters International

Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi of Iraq addresses the United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., September 22, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri


By Sabine Siebold

ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Germany's defence minister urged parties to Iraq's conflict on Friday to protect civilians during the looming offensive by a U.S.-led coalition to retake the northern city of Mosul from Islamic State (IS) militants.

Mosul, with an estimated population of 2 million when Islamic State seized it in 2014, is the largest urban centre under IS control. Its fall would mark Islamic State's effective defeat in Iraq, according to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

An onslaught by the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, expected to begin as early as next month, could trigger a humanitarian crisis with 1 million or more people potentially fleeing Mosul, U.N. experts say.

"Protection of civilians must be one of the core concerns," German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters after a meeting with Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, in its capital Erbil.

She welcomed recent efforts by Kurdish peshmerga forces to coordinate military action against Mosul with the Iraqi army.

Von der Leyen said it would be critical to prevent acts of revenge once Mosul was recaptured and to seek reconciliation between Kurds, Iranian-backed Shi'ite Muslim militias fighting alongside Iraqi government forces, and the majority Sunni Muslim population in the northern region.

Given the plethora of armed forces involved in Iraq's conflict, including Kurdish peshmerga and the Popular Mobilization Forces, a government-affiliated coalition of mostly Shi'ite militias, there is international concern that the offensive could unleash further sectarian violence.

Von der Leyen declined to say if Germany was increasing its aid to the Kurdish peshmerga in anticipation of the offensive.

"The goal now is to destroy Daesh. We will debate and decide what the detailed steps for afterwards when it's time," von der Leyen said, using the Arabic term for Islamic State.

She also announced plans to move Germany's training of the Kurdish forces closer to the front to save time, while still keeping German forces in the coalition away from any combat.

"It is our common goal to train the peshmerga as well as possible so they can rise to the challenge of crushing Islamic State in Mosul," she said. The German military was also prepared to train Iraqi forces, if needed.

Germany has 140 troops in the region working with 300 soldiers from other countries to train Kurdish forces on how to fight the ultra-hardline militants at close range.

(Writing by Andrea Shalal; editing by Mark Heinrich)


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