Dozens of Iraqi civilians, some of them still alive and calling out for help, were buried for days under the rubble of their homes in western Mosul after US-led air strikes flattened almost an entire city block.
At the site on Sunday, more than a week after the bombing runs, reporters for the New York Times saw weary survivors trying to find bodies in the wreckage. Iraqi officials said the final death toll could reach 200 or more, potentially making it one of the worst civilian tolls ever in a US military strike in Iraq.
The fighting against the Islamic State terror group here has grown more urgent, with Iraqi officers saying the US-led coalition has been quicker to strike urban targets from the air with less time to weigh the risks for civilians. They say the change reflects a renewed push by the US military under the Trump administration to speed up the battle for Mosul.
US military officials insist there have been no changes to its rules of engagement that lessen the risk for civilians. They say the reports of greater civilian casualties have come at a time of more intense operations both by Iraqi forces in Mosul and by forces fighting Islamic State, also known as Isis, in Syria.
Starting with the surge into Mosul in December, they say, US military advisers have been given more authority to call in some air strikes that do not have to be approved through headquarters.
Right now, the battle for Mosul is in its most dangerous phase for civilians, with the fight reaching into the twisting alleys and densely populated areas of the old city. Hundreds of thousands of civilians are pinned down here in tight quarters with Islamic State fighters who do not care if they live or die.
At the same time, more US special operations troops, some dressed in black uniforms and driving black vehicles – the colours of their Iraqi counterparts – are closer to the front lines. That way, in theory, the targeting of Islamic State fighters should become more precise for the coalition. Another 200 US soldiers, from the 82nd airborne division, are heading to Iraq to support that battle during the next few days.
Many Iraqi commanders welcome the more aggressive US role, saying that coalition officers were too risk averse under the Obama administration. Iraqis also say fighting for the dense, urban spaces of western Mosul requires more air power, even if that means more civilians will die.
When those decisions turn tragic, it looks like this: a panorama of destruction in the neighbourhood of Mosul Jidideh so vast one resident compared the destruction to that of Hiroshima, Japan, where the United States dropped an atomic bomb in the second World War. There was a charred arm, wrapped in a piece of red fabric, poking from the rubble; rescue workers in red jump suits who wore face masks to avoid the stench, some with rifles slung over their shoulders, searched the wreckage for bodies.
One of the survivors, Omar Adnan, stood near his destroyed home on Sunday and held up a white sheet of paper with 27 names of his extended family members, either dead or missing, written in blue ink. Nearby were two men. One of them, Ashraf Mohammed, said, “I lost all of my family except this guy, my brother.”
The civilian deaths have not been limited to the battle for Mosul, which is about 350km north of Baghdad. Across large areas of Syria and Iraq, more US ground troops are being committed to the fight, and more US air strikes are being utilised. In Syria, the battle has intensified in large part around Raqqa, Islamic State's declared capital. The campaigns in both countries intend to deprive Islamic State of its biggest cities, while keeping pressure on the group across its holdings.
Allegations of civilian casualties in both countries from US-led air strikes have increased so much in recent months that, for the first time, the number of coalition strikes affecting civilians has surpassed those carried out by Russia in Syria, according to Airwars, a monitoring organisation based in London that tracks international air strikes and their effect on civilians.
The group said the increase in reported civilian deaths began under president Barack Obama and accelerated after Donald Trump took office in January. US officials have confirmed that the coalition conducted air strikes in Mosul Jidideh on March 17th and that they are investigating whether it was to blame for the dozens of deaths there. They insist that they are doing everything they can to protect civilian lives while pushing the fight in Mosul.
Jim Mattis, the defence secretary, told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday that military leaders "are keenly aware that every battlefield where an enemy hides behind women and children" could lead to civilian casualties. "We go out of our way to always do everything humanly possible to reduce loss of life or injury among innocent people," he said.
Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, was captured by Islamic State terror in June 2014. An operation to retake it, led by the Iraqi government with the support of allies including the US, has been under way since October.
The east side of the city was mostly secured by Iraqi forces in January. Much of it remained intact, and everyday life resumed. But on the west, the fight has become more brutal, with sections that look like moonscapes.
‘A normal thing’
Maj Gen Maan al-Saadi, an Iraqi special operations forces commander, said his men had called in the US air strikes that caused the civilian deaths, adding of the victims, “We feel sad for them.” But he called the episode an unfortunate outcome in a nasty war. He said that Iraqi forces had lost thousands of men fighting Islamic State, and that to lose so many civilians in a single attack “in return for liberating the entire city of Mosul – I think it is a normal thing”.
“This is a war and mistakes can happen and there can be losses,” he said. “But we are fighting the most dangerous terrorist organisation in the world, with huge, unprecedented support from the international coalition.”
Gen Ali Jamil, an intelligence officer with the Iraqi special operations forces, said he had been fighting Islamic State for more than two years, with the support of US air power. "I have not seen such a quick response with high co-ordination from the coalition as I am seeing now," he said. Before when Iraqis requested air strikes, he said, "there used to be a delay, or no response sometimes, on the excuse of checking the location or looking for civilians".
On Sunday, a bulldozer pushed debris so rescuers could reach bodies. When one body was found, a man nearby identified it as that of his nephew and another man wrote his name down in a leather-bound notebook. The body was then zipped up in a blue plastic bag and placed inside a garage alongside others. Many of the dead had already been buried in the gardens of homes that were only damaged.
Residents who were in the neighbourhood during the fighting suggested there was every reason to believe the area had been filled with civilians at the time of the air strikes – especially because the Iraqi government and its US allies had dropped leaflets asking civilians to remain in their homes rather than risk fleeing into the middle of the battle.
But the battle has come to them now. As the fight for this west Mosul neighbourhood raged 10 days ago, Islamic State fighters were dashing between homes across courtyards and passing through holes punched in concrete walls that allowed them to move their positions without showing themselves on the streets. Advancing Iraqi soldiers, who called in the air strikes, were in earshot of civilians.
“They were very close,” said Mubishar Thanoon, a resident in his late 30s, standing on Sunday at the bedside of his brother, who was wounded in the attack, at a hospital in Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region. “I was hearing their voices. They knew exactly that we were there.”
Another man, Ziad Suleyman (27), said he could see an Iraqi special operations forces sniper on a nearby building, who was wearing a baseball cap and ear muffs and communicated with him using hand signals. “He was waving to me,” said Suleyman, also at the Irbil hospital, where he was visiting a wounded relative. “I was seeing him, he was seeing us.”
Residents and Iraqi officers said Islamic State fighters, some speaking Russian, according to residents, had taken sniper positions on the rooftops of homes, pinning down some advancing Iraqi forces. Hundreds of residents, trying to escape indiscriminate artillery and rocket fire and fearful of air strikes, took refuge in basements.
It was there that they died, from air strikes targeting the snipers that caused entire buildings to collapse, survivors recounted. “Not all of the houses had Daesh on the roof,” said Ali Abdulghani, a resident of the neighbourhood, using another name for Islamic State fighters. “Why, just because of one Daesh, kill everyone?”
US military officials have said that their investigation so far has found that one building collapsed days after the strikes in the neighborhood, raising the possibility that Islamic State blew up the building after the bombing runs, killing many civilians.
In interviews, survivors and local residents dismissed that, saying air strikes brought the buildings down. Survivors and Iraqi officers say fighting raged in the neighbourhood for days after the strikes, delaying the arrival of rescuers.
A few among the lucky are now lying, injured but alive, in hospital beds in Irbil, about 80km east of Mosul. Thanoon’s brother, Ali, was one of them. He survived days under the wreckage, emerging with a broken arm and many cuts and bruises. He recalled lying under the rubble never thinking he would die there, and speaking to another man nearby, who did not survive.
“It was a conversation between two dying men,” he said. He said he had hid in a basement not because Islamic State fighters forced him to, but because of the “terror and fear” of artillery and air strikes. “For me and my family, we thought this was the safest place,” he said. When asked what happened to his family, Ali’s brother quickly changed the subject.
A few moments later, in the hallway outside the room, Thanoon confided that he had not yet told his brother, who he said was delirious from his ordeal and from painkillers, that his family – his two wives, four daughters, two sons and two grandchildren – had all been killed.
New York Times