The First Full Month of the Battle for Mosul Killed Hundreds of Civilians
Air strikes are intensifying
by SAMUEL OAKFORD
Hundreds of civilians have already been credibly reported killed in the ongoing battle to recapture Mosul from Islamic State fighters, according to an Airwars assessment — slain by air strikes, mortar and artillery fire and in street battles.
Airwars’ Iraq researcher traveled to the front lines regularly starting in October. He reported an increasingly dire situation, as tens of thousands of civilians flee Mosul and ISIL shelling intensifies. He estimated that more than 100 civilians may have been killed in fighting since Nov. 20, 2016.
The Washington Post meanwhile has reported that the number of civilian victims may be as many as 600 since mid-October, according to one of its sources.
“ISIL is using new tactics, targeting liberated areas of the city, street by street, and targeting main squares in liberated neighborhoods,” Airwars’ Iraq researcher said, referring to the terror group’s use of mortars. “I think that will stop or delay Iraqi army offensives.”
In addition, air strikes appear to have led to dozens of civilian deaths since the start of the coalition assault on Mosul on Oct. 17, 2016. Through Nov. 30, 2016, Airwars has recorded a total of 41 alleged coalition civilian casualty incidents in and around Mosul. Between them these claim as many as 318 civilian deaths.
After reviewing and grading each incident, researchers at Airwars believe the likely civilian toll from Coalition airstrikes and artillery during the battle for Mosul presently stands at 98 to 101 killed — and 202 injured.
At the outset of the Mosul assault, coalition commander Stephen Townsend, a U.S. Army lieutenant general, said the battle would likely continue for weeks. Iraqi officials now hint the campaign may take six months.
On Nov. 30, 2016, they claimed that some 19 neighborhoods — representing about 30 percent of the eastern side of Mosul — had been recaptured since coalition-backed operations began on Oct. 17, 2016.
Gains slowed significantly during November 2016.
Iraqi officials, for their part, said they are going slower to prevent civilian deaths. But they have also sent conflicting messages to locals caught in the crossfire, first instructing them to stay in their homes — evidently in the hope they would revolt against ISIS— only to later reconsider that advice as casualties grew and progress into the city slowed in densely populated areas.
According to the United Nations, more than 77,000 people have so far been displaced by fighting. Humanitarian officials say they are still unprepared for a massive exodus of a half million or more Mosul civilians.
Litany of ISIS crimes
U.N. human rights monitoring seen by Airwars shows a litany of ongoing crimes committed by ISIS fighters. Doctors and elderly Moslawi killed by snipers, children shot down as they attempt to flee towards Iraqi Security Forces, car bombs claiming civilians in residential areas.
The deadliest weapon used by ISIS continues to be indiscriminate shelling, especially in areas recaptured by Iraqi Security Forces. On Nov. 17, 2016, 31 civilians including eight children were reportedly killed when ISIS shelled the government-controlled neighborhood of Al Bakir. Another attack in eastern Mosul on Nov. 23, 2016 reportedly claimed the lives of 11 civilians, including four women and two children.
The U.S.-led coalition, which has bombed ISIS targets in Iraq for more than two years, has intensified its campaign in and around Mosul. Through Nov. 28, 2016, the coalition reported 212 separate strikes in support of operations to recapture the city. A strike, as defined by the coalition, can range from a single bomb dropped by a jet to multiple planes partaking in a raid or unleashing sustained fire.
Prior to October 2016, Mosul was already the site of more than 400 likely civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes, according to the best estimates of Airwars researchers. This was the highest figure for any location across Iraq and Syria.
In previous investigations, relatives of those inside the city described a constant barrage of rockets and bombs that rained down on the city from November 2014. That pace has only increased since Oct. 17, 2016. According to the coalition, more than 4,900 munitions have been “delivered” in support of the Iraqi operation to recapture Mosul.
Airwars’ Iraq researcher reports that U.S. attack helicopters were also being used more heavily towards the end of November, as close-quarters fighting rendered air strikes less effective and more deadly to civilians.
“That move into an urban environment means that the tempo of our strikes is generally going to decrease,” coalition chief spokesman John Dorrian, a U.S. Air Force colonel, told Airwars in a recent interview. ‘That’s because you have to be more careful and you probably will see fewer opportunities to take that shot against an enemy.”
Dorrian added that coalition members may elect to use small munitions as the operation intensifies, moving from 2,000 pound bombs to ones weighing several hundred pounds. “Obviously as you get into the urban environment it is appropriate.”
Eight deaths admitted
The coalition has so far admitted to just eight civilian deaths from its Mosul campaign — all in a bombing that took place on Oct. 22, 2016 in Fadhiliya, outside Mosul, which killed an entire family. Iraq-based reporter Fazel Hawramy had obtained eyewitness testimony, published in The Guardian, which brought the attack to the attention of coalition officials.
Other civilian casualty incidents, particularly those inside ISIS-controlled neighborhoods of Mosul, do not benefit from similar in-depth reporting. Accounts that do emerge may include information or video from ISIS-controlled outlets.
On Nov. 18, 2016, at least seven civilians were reportedly killed and 14 injured in what local accounts reported as coalition bombings, but which other accounts only referred to as “heavy shelling.” Though initial reports cited ISIS-linked sources, Airwars researchers were able to find additional reports that also blamed the coalition.
In other cases, a single report — even if from a highly credible source — can be insufficient to determine what occurred. On Nov. 13, 2016, the Norwegian Refugee Council tweeted that a father told them “three family members were killed” and a mother and two children badly burned when their home in eastern Mosul was shelled. It is unclear who was responsible.
A number of other events have been also been reported by word of mouth to Airwars, either by Iraqi forces or by affected civilians.
Though the United Nations monitors civilian casualties, it generally doesn’t assign blame for airstrikes — leaving it unclear if an attack is carried out by the coalition or the Iraqi air force. Some incidents — such as an Oct. 21, 2016 bombing that killed 15 women in Duquq south of Kirkuk — were originally blamed on the coalition but later linked to the Iraqi air force.
Recent attacks in Tal Afar — carried out as part of the Mosul campaign — have also seen blame contested between the coalition and Iraq government.
Given reporting limitations, international monitors meanwhile have had difficulty in evaluating more than a handful of cases. Human Rights Watch recently released an investigation into an Oct. 18, 2016 bombing south of Mosul that left eight civilians dead.
The air strike targeted ISIS, which had commandeered a medical clinic in the town of Hammam Al Alil. The precision attack also killed two ISIS fighters, as well as its transport minister. Human Rights Watch has called on both the Iraqi government and the coalition to investigate.
Belkis Wille, Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch, said investigations are exceedingly challenging in and around Mosul. “Because of the different types of attacks being carried out by ISIS, Iraqi and [Kurdistan Regional Government] forces and the coalition, it is extremely difficult for human rights workers to identify why a civilian was wounded or died during the course of the battle,” Wille told Airwars.
“In addition, even where we can, because of the dangers of working along the front line, it is very difficult for us to identify whether there was a legitimate military target in the area, and therefore whether the attack was lawful or not.”
Difficulties in tracking casualties and those responsible could not come at a worse time for civilians in both Iraq and Syria. According to Airwars researchers, November saw record numbers of civilian casualty claims involving both the U.S.-led coalition and Russian forces operating in Syria.