PARIS (AP) — Iraq's prime minister vowed Thursday to protect civilians fleeing the battle to oust Islamic State extremists from Mosul, as the offensive picked up speed and diplomats worked to ensure the gains are lasting — and that jihadists don't escape.
French President Francois Hollande, hosting a conference on stabilizing Mosul, urged the international community not to abandon the city once the multi-pronged military operation is over. Diplomats from the U.S., Iraq and some 20 other countries gathered in Paris to devise a plan to protect civilians, distribute aid and address questions about governing areas newly liberated from IS.
The offensive for Mosul — Iraq's second-largest city and the biggest IS-held city — is expected to take weeks, if not months. There are fears it could unleash sectarian tensions, and threaten civilians in a region ravaged by years of violence.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi said Thursday that Mosul may fall sooner than expected. "The fighting forces are currently pushing forward toward the town more quickly than we thought, and more quickly certainly than we established in our plan of campaign," he told the Paris conference via video transmission.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault warned that up to a million people might try to flee Mosul, and said authorities must check each one to make sure extremists aren't among them.
Ayrault also said the international community must think about the next step — notably, what do about the IS stronghold of Raqqa in Syria.
As the Mosul fighting intensifies, Al-Abadi said the Iraqi government is "providing support for internally displaced people," and opening humanitarian corridors amid the ongoing military operations.
"We will not allow any violations of human rights," he said.
He stressed that the battle is led by Iraq and is not a foreign invasion, though it has military support from a broad U.S.-led coalition. He also praised the diverse nature of today's Iraqi forces, including Kurdish peshmerga, fighting IS.
Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders, speaking in Paris, said his government will contribute 1 million euros ($1.1 million) to fund demining activities in Mosul once Islamic State fighters have been driven out.
"By demining these areas, people who have fled can safely return to rebuild their lives," Koenders said in a statement.
Koenders also stressed that Mosul should retain its multiethnic character once it is liberated. "So there needs to be a reconciliation process and everybody should be represented in the future government of the city," he said.
Hollande echoed that. "We should not look at Mosul as a place on the map, a military objective. We should look at Mosul as a way to prepare the Iraq of tomorrow," he said. "If we are capable of showing this, we will not only have won the battle, we will have won the war."
French authorities believe attacks on French soil in recent years have been plotted from IS strongholds in Syria and Iraq. French warplanes and artillery are involved in the battle for Mosul, as part of the U.S.-led military coalition backing the Iraqi campaign. Hollande said France has 4,000 people deployed in the region, including those on the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier and support forces on the ground near Qayyarah.
The talks Thursday come as Iraqi special forces charged into the Mosul battle with a pre-dawn advance on a nearby town. Attack helicopters fired on the militants and heavy gunfire echoed across the plains.
IS captured Mosul during a lightning advance across northern Iraq in 2014. It is the largest city controlled by the extremist group and its last major urban bastion in Iraq.
Several aid groups said in a joint statement that safe escape routes should be established for the 1.2 million civilians, including "at least 600,000 children," trapped inside Mosul.
Save the Children, Oxfam, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the International Rescue Committee said families risk "being killed by heavy weapons and used as human shields by ISIS" if they stay inside Mosul, or could be "caught in crossfire, shot by snipers or stepping on land mines if they try to flee."
The organizations said reconciliation plans must be developed now to prevent "catastrophic consequences for Mosul's children and their families, as well as Iraq's future."
Mike Corder in Maastricht, the Netherlands, and Samuel Petrequin in Paris contributed.