THE scale of civilian deaths in Mosul raises questions over rules of engagement being used by US-led coalition and Iraqi forces, says Amnesty International.
Commenting on the US air strikes, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday: ‘The tragedy that occurred in Mosul on March 17, when over 200 civilians were killed, stands out as the bombardment lasted several hours. If it takes you hours to understand that you are hitting wrong targets, then I am very surprised at the US military’s actions for it has all the necessary equipment.’
He added in later comments on Tuesday: ‘It is hardly possible to compare these steps to the “surgical strikes” that led to numerous civilian deaths and destroyed local infrastructure. Everyone remembers how Western countries and mass media outlets controlled by them reacted to the situation in Syria’s Aleppo. At the same time, they continue glossing over the humanitarian situation in Mosul, hushing up the scale of the situation.’
British warplanes were operating in the region of Mosul where hundreds of civilians were killed in the US-led coalition airstrikes, the Ministry of Defence has confirmed. RAF Tornado aircraft destroyed five terrorist Islamic State targets using laser-guided Paveway IV missiles weighing 500lbs each.
The jets were flying in ‘very challenging conditions with heavy cloud’ on March 17 when over 200 civilians lost their lives in coalition strikes on the al-Jadida neighbourhood in western Mosul. The MoD refused to confirm whether their jets were flying in the specific area of the deadly bombings but said they were ‘supporting the liberation of western Mosul’.
Amnesty International said hundreds of civilians have been killed by airstrikes inside their homes or in places where they sought refuge after following Iraqi government advice not to leave during the offensive to recapture the city of Mosul from the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS).
Survivors and eyewitnesses in east Mosul said they did not try to flee as the battle got underway because they received repeated instructions from the Iraqi authorities to remain in their homes. The shocking spike in civilian casualties from both US-led coalition airstrikes and ground fighting between the Iraqi military and IS fighters in recent months has also raised serious questions about the lawfulness of these attacks, stressed Amnesty.
In one of the deadliest strikes in years just days ago on 17 March 2017, up to 200 people were reported killed in a coalition airstrike in the Jadida neighbourhood of west Mosul, eventually leading the coalition to announce that it is investigating the incident.
Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International, who carried out field investigations in Mosul, said: ‘Evidence gathered on the ground in east Mosul points to an alarming pattern of US-led coalition airstrikes which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside.
‘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. 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 number of civilian casualties.
‘Disproportionate attacks and indiscriminate attacks violate international humanitarian law and can constitute war crimes. The Iraqi government and the US-led coalition, must immediately launch an independent and impartial investigation into the appalling civilian death toll resulting from the Mosul operation.’
Fleeing the city ahead of the fighting was also extremely difficult for residents of Mosul, as IS militants routinely punished and at times killed those caught trying to leave. Wa’ad Ahmad al-Tai, a resident of the al-Zahra neighbourhood of east Mosul, was among many civilians who followed Iraqi government advice to stay put.
He said: ‘We followed the instructions of the government who told us “stay in our homes and avoid displacement”. According to the instructions, residents who had nothing to do with Daesh (IS, in Arabic) should stay in their homes … We heard these instructions on the radio … Also leaflets were dropped by planes. This is why we stayed in our homes.’
As the fighting intensified, Wa’ad Ahmad al-Tai, his brother Mahmoud and their families sought shelter at their other brother’s two-storey home hoping it would offer them more protection. He added: ‘We were all huddled in one room at the back of the house, 18 of us, three families. But when the house next door was bombed, it collapsed on us, precisely over the room we were sheltering in.
‘My son Yusef, nine, and my daughter Shahad, three, were killed, together with my brother Mahmoud, his wife Manaya and their nine-year-old son Aws, and my niece Hanan. She was cradling her five-month-old daughter, who survived, thank God.’
Hind Amir Ahmad, a 23-year-old woman who lost 11 relatives, including her parents, grandparents and four young siblings, in a coalition airstrike in east Mosul, described the fatal attack on 13 December 2016 to Amnesty International. She said: ‘We were sleeping when the house literally collapsed on us. It was a miracle none of us was killed.
‘We ran to my uncle’s house nearby. At about 2pm that house too was bombed and collapsed on us … almost everyone in the house was killed – 11 people. My cousin, two aunts and I were the only ones who survived. Everyone else died. It took us six days to find only pieces of their bodies, which we buried in a mass grave in a field nearby … I don’t know why we were bombed. All I know is that I have lost everyone who was dearest to me.’
In another air strike, 16 people were killed in three adjacent houses in the Hay al-Mazaraa district of east Mosul on 6 January 2017. Survivors and neighbours told Amnesty International that insofar as they knew, no IS fighters had been present in or around the house. Among the victims were the three children and the mother of Shaima’ Qadhem, who had been arrested and killed by IS the previous year.
Ahmad, a relative of the victims, told Amnesty International: ‘This family was targeted by all sides. Last year Daesh arrested and executed the children’s mother and now the children themselves were killed by a (US-led) coalition bombing. Civilians got trapped in this war and no one helped them … Did the government, the coalition, think how to protect the civilians in this war? It doesn’t seem so.’
International humanitarian law (also called the laws of war) demands that all feasible precautions must be taken by warring parties to a conflict to minimise harm to civilians, and that attacks must not cause disproportionate harm to civilians – that is, damage which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.
In many of the cases investigated by Amnesty International where civilians were killed in coalition airstrikes, surviving residents and neighbours told the organisation that IS fighters had been present in or around the targeted houses – usually on the roof or in the garden – as well as in or around other nearby houses which were not targeted. In all the cases the air strikes destroyed entire houses, often also destroying or severely damaging nearby houses and properties.
‘In a densely populated residential area, the risks for the civilian population become enormous. However, the IS’s use of human shields does not absolve Iraqi and coalition forces from their obligation not to launch disproportionate attacks,’ said Donatella Rovera.
Mohammed, a resident of the Hay al-Dhubbat district of east Mosul who lost several relatives in a coalition air strike, told Amnesty International: ‘The Dawa’ish (IS militants) ran this city for two and a half years and they were rarely targeted during all that time … Why now (are they) destroying our homes with our families inside, just to eliminate two or three Dawa’ish on the roof?’
In one case, five members of one family and their neighbour were killed and several others injured when three houses in the Hay al-Salam district of East Mosul were destroyed by coalition strikes on 5 January 2017. Survivors and neighbours told Amnesty International that IS fighters were present in a room inside the house, but were unharmed by the strike. The IS fighters were later killed by Iraqi forces who eventually reached the house.
Na’el Tawfiq AbdelHafez, whose 23-year-old son Mos’ab was killed in the strike, told Amnesty International that for months before the attack they were surrounded by fighting, with IS snipers on rooftops firing and Iraqi soldiers firing mortars into the neighbourhood.
He said that IS fighters ‘left but as they were leaving, the house was bombed. My son was killed and the rest of us were injured. My daughter Bara’ lost an eye. But the Dawa’ish were still alive.’ Next door, Muthar Dhannun, whose sister, husband and three children were killed in the same strike, said: ‘Civilians were made to pay the price for the crimes of Daesh. This is unfair.’
Residents also told Amnesty International that civilians were killed and injured by indiscriminate mortar-fire launched by both IS fighters and Iraqi forces in populated residential areas. Some residents said Iraqi forces used mostly 60mm and 82mm mortars and, less frequently, 120mm mortars, whereas IS fighters mostly used 120mm mortars.
Mortars cannot be accurately directed at a military target. They are designed for battlefield use and should never be used in densely populated civilian neighbourhoods, stressed Amnesty. They have varying margins of error (which can be reduced in 120mm mortars if they are fitted with laser-guided precision systems) and a blast radius ranging from some 20-25 metres for 60mm mortars to some 75 metres for 120mm mortars.
In a residential environment, where streets are only a few metres wide, the mortars’ margin of error and blast radius mean that they are highly likely to cause civilian casualties in the areas around the intended target. Instead of evacuating civilians from newly recaptured areas so as to minimise the risk of them being harmed in attacks, Iraqi forces appear to have endangered them further by encouraging them to remain at home and setting up military positions nearby,’ said Amnesty’s Donatella Rovera.
‘All parties to the conflict must refrain from the use of mortars and other imprecise explosive weapons in the densely populated neighbourhoods of Mosul. The civilian population has borne the brunt of the battle to recapture Mosul, with all sides displaying a chilling indifference to the devastating suffering caused to the city’s civilians.’