This tactic gets civilians killed
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
In October 2016, Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga troops began moving toward Mosul, uprooting die-hard Islamic State fighters on three sides. Now, as those forces work to solidify their hard-fought gains, a new video shows Baghdad using the exact kind of tactics it should be trying to avoid.
On Nov. 14, 2016, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense released a YouTube clip highlighting its various armed helicopters. Worryingly, the official footage shows a Russian-made Mi-171 transport chopper dropping unguided “dumb” bombs on an unspecified target.
“The … footage clearly shows dumb unguided bombs being dropped on villages,” Chris Woods of the independent monitoring group Airwars told War Is Boring in an email. “We don’t know the status of those places — whether [Islamic State] had driven out all the civilians already.”
But we do know that these sorts of imprecise attacks can easily kill innocent bystanders — and drive survivors into the arms of extremists.
While the November video is among the first clear evidence of Iraqi choppers flying these bombing runs, the concept isn’t new. In neighboring Syria, government Mi-17s — similar to Iraq’s Mi-171s — dropping improvised “barrel bombs” have become a recurring sight in the country’s brutal civil war.
From the footage, it’s not immediately clear what sort of bombs or how many the Iraqi helicopter carried. Though the M-171’s primary job is to ferry troops and gear around the battlefield, the helicopter has four racks for various weapons, including rocket pods and gun packs.
In the clip, the crew drop four bombs — two each of distinctly different types. American-supplied M-240H machine guns are visible, too.
Unfortunately, dropping dumb bombs of any kind — especially from high altitudes as seen in the Iraqi footage — is inherently indiscriminate. The United States and its allies have rightly criticized Syrian and Russian forces for similarly reckless air strikes on rebel positions inside civilian areas.
In comparison, the Pentagon has boasted about the precision of its aerial campaign on the Islamic State. U.S. military spokespersons repeatedly emphasize that American pilots only drop laser- and GPS-guided weapons and fly missions based on complex intelligence data.
“We have teams who work full time, to prevent unintended civilian casualties,” Air Force Col. John Thomas, a spokesperson for U.S. Central Command, said in a statement on Nov. 9, 2016. “Sometimes civilians bear the brunt of military action but we do all we can to minimize those occurrences even at the cost of sometimes missing the chance to strike valid targets in real time.”
In numerous statements and videos, Iraqi officials have highlighted their own array of more advanced weapons. To be fair, the Iraqi Air Force does have some state-of-the-art aircraft similar to their American counterparts.
On Nov. 18, 2016, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense announced the arrival of the latest batch of America-built F-16IQ jets, which can carry precision-guided munitions. More than two years earlier, Russia delivered an order of 10 Mi-28NE attack helicopters loaded with guided missiles and powerful night-vision cameras.
Still, it remains unclear just how well Iraqi pilots are able to make use of these advanced planes and choppers. More importantly, these aircraft only represent a small portion of Iraq’s air force.
“While the media’s focus is often on international actions, the Iraq government also carries out a significant number of airstrikes using less well trained crews and poorer equipment,” Woods added. “The result has predictably been allegations of significant civilian casualties.”
Part of the problem is that American commanders want to avoid providing support to Iranian-backed militias. Humanitarian organizations and independent observers regularly accuse these groups, uniformed troops and police of human rights violations.
Baghdad has taken creative steps to provide air support for troops on the ground. In July 2016, photographs appeared showing Iraqi crews with An-26 transport planes modified for an attack role — again with dumb bombs.
The armed Mi-17s appear to be the latest addition to this makeshift bomber force. This could spell disaster for civilians on the ground.
“If locals still remained, these Iraq Army tactics would place them at high risk of death or injury,” Woods noted.
This is a particularly troubling trend. Indiscriminate Iraqi military operations and outright abuses gave Islamic State room to grow in the first place.
When Islamic State blitzed across northern Iraq in summer 2014, entire Iraqi divisions collapsed and troops fled en masse. Sectarian strife and government ineptitude was so bad that some Sunnis reportedly welcomed the extremists as liberators.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi “has been very clear that he doesn’t want any human rights abuses or any types of abuses and that he’s going to hold people accountable if he sees those sorts of things,” Air Force Col. John Dorrian said on Nov. 3, referring specifically to operations near the city of Tal Afar.
If Iraqi choppers are dropping dumb bombs on villages, Abadi may have a hard time convincing his constituents — particularly Sunnis — that he’s serious about keeping people safe.