ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey is ready for hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Iraqi city of Mosul if a U.S.-backed operation to drive out Islamic State fuels sectarian violence, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said on Monday.
Iraqi government forces, with air and ground support from the U.S.-led coalition, launched the long-anticipated offensive early on Monday to push the jihadist group out of Mosul, its last major stronghold in Iraq.
Turkey has repeatedly said that letting Shi‘ite militias, which the Iraqi army has relied on in the past, take part in the assault on the mainly Sunni Arab city could spark sectarian violence.
“If the Mosul operation is handled correctly, there won’t be a refugee wave into Turkey,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told a news conference in Ankara.
“(But) if something goes wrong in Mosul, hundreds of thousands will put their migrant bags on their backs, they will be miserable and worn out, and come with their belongings to the only place they can go to, which is Turkey,” he said.
The United Nations refugee agency said up to 100,000 Iraqis may flee to Syria and Turkey to escape the assault on Mosul, a city of 1.5 million people where in 2014 Islamic State proclaimed a “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria.
An official from Turkey’s disaster management agency AFAD said the country’s experience of dealing with migrants from Syria’s civil war, who now number more than 3 million in Turkey, meant it was well enough prepared.
“For us, building a tent camp is a very easy task. We can swiftly establish camps to host hundreds or thousands of refugees,” the official told Reuters.
“The procedure is standardised, and it will work like a clock. The army will take away people’s weapons, the police will run checks on the refugees, the immigration authority will register them, and the Red Crescent will provide them with water, food and shelter,” he said.
Witnesses said Turkish military vehicles, including tanks, armoured vehicles and trucks carrying munitions were deployed to an army facility in the Turkish district of Silopi on the Iraqi border overnight.
Turkey has repeatedly warned the operation in Mosul could unleash sectarian strife. Ankara has been locked in a row with Baghdad about the presence of Turkish troops at a camp in northern Iraq and over who should take part in the assault on Iraq’s second-biggest city.
Some 30,000 Iraqi soldiers, Kurdish Peshmerga militia and Sunni tribal fighters are expected to take part in the offensive. Kurtulmus said some 3,000 Iraqi fighters trained by Turkish soldiers at the Bashiqa military camp in northern Iraq were involved.
Writing by Ayla Jean Yackley; Editing by Nick Tattersall