BAGHDAD — Mosul’s children are bearing the brunt of the intensified fight between US-backed government forces and the Islamic State group in the city’s western half, the United Nations children’s agency warned on Monday.
Iraqi forces are in their last push to drive Islamic State militants from the remaining pockets of territory they still hold in the Old City where narrow streets and a dense civilian population are complicating the fight.
The UNICEF representative in Iraq, Peter Hawkins, said the agency is receiving ‘‘alarming reports’’ of civilians being killed, including children, with some caught in the cross fire while trying to flee.
Hawkins didn’t give a specific number for killed children.
He estimated that 100,000 girls and boys are still in the Islamic State-held Old City neighborhood and other areas, living under extremely dangerous conditions. He called on the warring parties to ‘‘protect the children and keep them out of harm’s way at all times, in line with their obligations under humanitarian law.’’
‘‘Children’s lives are on the line. Children are being killed, injured, and used as human shields. Children are experiencing and witnessing terrible violence that no human being should ever witness,’’ he said. ‘‘In some cases, they have been forced to participate in the fighting and violence.’’
Backed by the US-led international coalition, Iraq last October launched a wide-scale military offensive to recapture Mosul and the surrounding areas, with various Iraqi military, police, and paramilitary forces taking part in the operation.
The city’s eastern half was declared liberated in January, and the push for the city’s western section, separated from the east by the Tigris River, began the following month.
Meanwhile, an international human rights group reported Monday that at least 26 bodies of ‘‘blindfolded and handcuffed’’ men were found in government-controlled areas and around Mosul since the operation started.
Human Rights Watch said local armed forces told foreign journalists that in 15 of the cases the men were extra-judicially killed by government forces who were holding them on suspicion of being affiliated with the Islamic State.
Human Rights Watch added that in the remaining cases that were reported by local and international sources, the sites of the apparent executions, all in government-held territory, raise concerns about government responsibility for the killings.
‘‘The bodies of bound and blindfolded men are being found one after the other in and around Mosul and in the Tigris River, raising serious concerns about extrajudicial killings by government forces,’’ said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. ‘‘The lack of any apparent government action to investigate these deaths undermines the government’s statements on protecting detainee rights.’’
Extrajudicial executions during an armed conflict are war crimes and if widespread or systematic, carried out as part of policy, would constitute crimes against humanity, it said.
Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul fell to the Islamic State in the summer of 2014 as the militants swept over much of the country’s north and central areas.
Weeks later the head of the Sunni extremist group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced the formation of a self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque.
As Iraqi forces in Mosul close in on the last pockets of urban territory still held by the Islamic State, residents of Fallujah in Iraq’s Sunni heartland are still struggling to rebuild nearly a year after their neighborhoods were declared liberated from the extremists.
After declaring the city liberated last June, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called the victory a major step toward unifying Iraq more than two years after nearly a third of the country fell to the Islamic State. ‘‘Fallujah has returned to the nation,’’ he declared in a speech broadcast nationwide.
But in the months that followed, while the Iraqi government compiled databases and set up tight checkpoints on the main roads in and out of Fallujah to screen residents for suspected ties with the Islamic State, it provided little in the way of reconstruction money, local officials say.
Sheikh Talib Al-Hasnawi, the head of Fallujah’s municipal council, said international aid is what has provided electricity, repaired water pumps and built filtration systems.
‘‘We have a real problem with [Islamic State] sleeper cells,’’ he said, adding that what Fallujah needs most is a strong security force to prevent the extremists from reestablishing a foothold in the city some 40 miles west of Baghdad. ‘‘Honestly the support from Baghdad has been very weak,’’ he added, noting that his repeated requests for more equipment and arms for the city’s local police have gone unheeded.
‘‘So mostly we are relying on the civilians to alert us to threats,’’ he said. ‘‘All we can provide are the very basics.’’