Women and children wait for transportation to camps for people displaced from Mosul, Iraq, on Wednesday, March 8, 2017.

Women and children wait for transportation to camps for people displaced from Mosul, Iraq, on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. (Chad Garland/Stars and Stripes)

IRBIL, Iraq — Islamic State militants this week executed scores of civilians trying to flee west Mosul and hanged some of their bodies from utility poles, Iraqi officials said Friday.

On Twitter, the Kurdistan Region Security Council said the jihadis had “massacred 140 civilians” who were trying to escape to areas held by Iraqi security forces on Monday and Tuesday.

“Some bodies were later hung on electrical poles in [the] Islah Zirai and Tanak neighborhoods, others were taken to nearby front lines,” the security council tweeted from an official account.

The fight for Iraq’s second largest city, which militants have held since 2014, has been grinding on for more than five months as U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have faced snipers, mortars and suicide car bomb attacks. Iraqi forces have surrounded the city and cut off militants’ escape route to Syria.

The news of this week’s executions comes as ISIS has reportedly started sacrificing civilians to repel the Iraqi advance. Militants have been threatening civilians to hold the populace in the city, in part to complicate the government’s offensive. They have executed some civilians as examples and fired small arms and mortars at fleeing men, women and children.

Brig. Gen. John B. Richardson IV, a coalition deputy commanding general in Irbil, said on Monday that Iraqi troops recently found the bodies of nine beheaded Iraqis at a traffic circle with a sign threatening more executions of anyone caught fleeing the militants’ self-styled caliphate.

Recovered ISIS propaganda and interviews with fleeing residents indicate militants told civilians that Kurdish forces, Shiite militias and international troops would kill or imprison them if they fled. But more than 300,000 civilians are currently displaced after fleeing the offensive, which began in October. Roughly 150,000 have escaped the city since the campaign moved into the western half of the city in February.

Still, roughly 600,000 civilians remain. The United Nations estimated late last month that about 400,000 people are still “trapped” in the dense Old City, where streets are narrow and winding, and troops have been fighting in close-quarters urban combat.

This week’s executions came as Richardson and other U.S. officials announced that ISIS has adopted a new “sinister” tactic meant to slow the Iraqi advance by sidelining the coalition air and artillery support that enables them.

“They brought the civilians back into the fight,” Richardson said of the militants. “They’re actually telling them to stay in the neighborhoods,” he said. Richardson is one of a few officers charged with approving precision strikes in support of the Iraqis.

ISIS is openly using the noncombatants as human shields to block strikes and secretly herding civilians into buildings used as defensive positions, aiming to maximize the potential civilian toll of a strike for anti-coalition propaganda value.

The Iraqi commander in charge of the Mosul battle told NPR this week that the Iraqi military will slow its push into the Old City to try to minimize civilian casualties.

“We agreed among the commanders to not depend on the airstrikes because that means we will maybe lose a lot of people,” said Maj. Gen. Najm Abdullah al-Jabouri, head of the Ninevah Operations Command.

But officials worry anything that slows the offensive puts more lives at risk from starvation, crossfire and ISIS execution.

“The longer it drags on, the more civilians are going to suffer,” Richardson said.

Humanitarian groups have criticized the Iraqi government for telling civilians not to flee Mosul. Now Iraqi officials are trying to evacuate them, Richardson said.

“The safest place for them is out of Mosul.” Twitter: @chadgarland

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Chad is a Marine Corps veteran who covers the U.S. military in the Middle East, Afghanistan and sometimes elsewhere for Stars and Stripes. An Illinois native who’s reported for news outlets in Washington, D.C., Arizona, Oregon and California, he’s an alumnus of the Defense Language Institute, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Arizona State University.

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