After battling through Mosul’s eastern neighbourhoods in 2016, Iraq’s armed forces launched a renewed offensive to reclaim western Mosul from the extremist group Islamic State (ISIS) in February 2017. Announcing the military operation, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that “our mission will be to liberate the people before liberating the land”. However, in the first month of the operation, approximately 4,000 civilians were killed and 500,000 residents fled, according to a report issued by the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights, which was based on testimonies collected from survivors, escapees and relatives of the victims.
Western Mosul’s narrow streets and more densely populated neighbourhoods added an additional challenge for the government troops attempting to advance.
Meanwhile, the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, a US-led coalition formed in September 2014 under President Barack Obama, continued to carry out air strikes on western Mosul, and the civilian death toll continued to rise. Evidence gathered on the ground points to “an alarming pattern” of the strikes, which destroyed homes with the residents still inside, according to Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser.
“The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces leading the offensive in Mosul have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law,” she said, adding, “The fact that Iraqi authorities repeatedly advised civilians to remain at home instead of fleeing the area, indicates that coalition forces should have known that these strikes were likely to result in a significant numbers of civilian casualties.”
The fighting intensified between 17 and 25 March, 2017 when a series of coalition air strikes were carried out. The exact number of civilian casualties is disputed. However, all the figures released indicate that dozens, if not hundreds, of people were killed.
In one strike, several houses were demolished in the al-Jadidah neighbourhood. Captain Leith Sattar, of the First Civil Defence that was called to the scene, issued a statement saying that “the number of deaths had reached 511 so far, but we do not know where we will find other victims, because the shelling threw some of them hundreds of metres away, while the bodies of other victims were Blown to pieces.” Sattar added that 187 children under the age of 15 were among the dead. Iraqi officials later announced that the final civilian death toll was 300.
Almost immediately, the parties involved began to distance themselves from the atrocities and traded accusations about who was responsible. US forces confirmed that they were in the area at the time of the incident and promised to investigate. In an audio briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the top US commander in Iraq, told reporters that there was “a fair chance” that a coalition air strike played a role in the deaths.
Several statements were issued to justify the strike. Coalition forces said that they had attacked a truck that belonged to ISIS and that the truck was loaded with explosives. Iraqi authorities accused ISIS itself of rigging the targeted area with explosives and blowing them up, after forcing the residents to stay in their houses.
Regardless of the circumstances, the number of civilians killed in a single air strike is the highest since US forces entered Iraq in 2003. The operation has also triggered debate about American military tactics. US forces were accused of disregarding the strict rules of engagement that would normally reduce civilian casualties.
Amnesty International released several reports alleging that ‘acts of torture and murder of villagers’ were committed in February 2017 by Iraqi Federal Police forces in southern and southwestern parts of Mosul as well as the nearby towns of Ash Shura and al-Qayyarah. Lynn Maalouf, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Beirut Regional Office, said in a statement that “a group of men wearing the uniform of Iraqi Federal Police forces carried out unlawful killings after capturing residents of villages in southern Mosul and committing premeditated killing”, adding that “in some cases the residents were subjected to torture before they were executed in what looked like shooting”.
A subsequent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report provided evidence of ‘the dirtiest and most lethal’ attacks against civilians during the operations. The organization reported that a force called the Emergency Response Division of the Iraqi Federal Police used so-called improvised rocket-assisted munitions (IRAM). Although HRW did not mention civilian casualties resulting from the use of these rockets, it said that their indiscriminate nature makes their use in populated civilian areas a serious violation of the laws of war, and may even amount to a war crime. The Iraqi government has not denied using these weapons in the fighting.
The hallmarks of ISIS were also clear, according to different reports that described the killing and execution of large numbers of civilians in Mosul or the use of civilians as human shields. The United Nations Human Rights Office in Iraq said at the beginning of the operation in October 2016 that ISIS forced some 550 families in the vicinity of Mosul to enter the city and concentrated them near the organization’s headquarters, deliberately putting them in harm’s way.
In interviews with the Iraqi news website Baghdad Post, a number of eyewitnesses described the summary executions carried out by ISIS. They said that ISIS executed more than 39 people from the al-Qayrawan neighbourhood who were trying to flee to areas controlled by the Iraqi security forces. Some of the victims’ bodies were hung up in public places to discourage others from fleeing.
Civilians have paid with their lives for following official advice to stay in their homes. Yet the prospects for survivors are little better. Hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped in the part of Mosul still controlled by ISIS, where supplies of food, fuel and drinkable water are dwindling and violence is a daily reality.