Iraq: battle for West Mosul has been 'catastrophic' for civilians - new report

An unknown number of civilians have been killed in the offensive on West Mosul © Amnesty International

ISIS has used human shields, summarily killed hundreds - possibly thousands - of civilians and hung bodies from electricity pylons as warning to others

Iraqi and US-led coalition’s bombardments have killed ‘huge number’ of civilians, according to one Iraqi eyewitness  

Call for independent commission to investigate scale of civilian deaths 

New letter to Michael Fallon questions UK claims over no civilian casualties, with Amnesty’s Kate Allen saying claim is ‘implausible’

The horrifying scale of death, injury and suffering of civilians trapped in the battle for west Mosul in Iraq is revealed by a new report today (11 July), with both Islamic State and Iraqi and coalition forces blamed over their military tactics.

Amnesty’s 50-page report, At any cost: The civilian catastrophe in West Mosul, Iraq, which studied hostilities in west Mosul from January to mid-May, shows how the Islamic State armed group has used civilians as human shields, forcing them from neighbouring villages into battle zones in west Mosul, while also trapping them in their homes to prevent them from escaping.

Meanwhile, Iraqi and coalition forces - which include British forces - have failed to take adequate measures to protect civilians, instead subjecting them to a terrifying barrage of fire from weapons that should not have been used in densely-populated civilian areas. Amnesty’s report makes the point that Iraqi and coalition forces failed to adapt their tactics even after ISIS had driven ivilians into areas affected by fighting, making west Mosul more and more crowded with civilians as the battle raged on. Instead, Iraqi and coalition forces continued to use imprecise weapons with wide-area effects in densely-populated urban environments. 

Amnesty researchers interviewed 151 west Mosul residents, experts and analysts, and documented 45 attacks in total, which killed at least 426 civilians and injured more than 100, providing analysis for nine specific attacks by Iraqi forces and the US-led coalition. 

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, said:

“ISIS’s use of people as human shields does not lessen the legal obligation of pro-government forces to protect civilians. 

“The scale and gravity of the loss of civilian lives during the military operation to retake Mosul must immediately be publicly acknowledged at the highest levels of government in Iraq and states that are part of the US-led coalition.

“The horrors that the people of Mosul have witnessed and the disregard for human life by all parties to this conflict must not go unpunished. Entire families have been wiped out, many of whom are still buried under the rubble today. The people of Mosul deserve to know, from their government, that there will be justice and reparation so that the harrowing impact of this operation is duly addressed.

“An independent commission must immediately be established, tasked with ensuring that any instances where there is credible evidence that violations of international law took place, effective investigations are carried out, and the findings made public.”

ISIS welded doors of homes shut and hung bodies on pylons

Since October 2016, ISIS has carried out a systematic campaign of forced displacement in the Mosul area, moving thousands of civilians from neighbouring villages into districts under ISIS control, with these civilians often used as human shields. “Abu Haidar”, a man from the village of Tel Arbeed who was forced to move into west Mosul, told Amnesty: “[ISIS] said you must leave, or you will be killed. We were brought as human shields. They brought us to stand between them and the missiles. All of this happened just before the operation for west Mosul started.”

Meanwhile, to prevent civilians from evacuating to safety, ISIS trapped people inside their homes by welding their doors shut, rigging booby traps at exits, and summarily killing hundreds - perhaps thousands - of people attempting to escape. Mosul resident “Mohsen” told Amnesty: “They came to us in a pick-up truck, with a generator in the back, and then they welded shut the gap between the two doors … They did this to our door, and even worse, they did it to another house in our neighbourhood where hundreds of people were staying.” 

Another man, “Hasan”, witnessed how ISIS hanged the bodies of civilians trying to flee from electricity pylons: “We did not have any options. If you stayed, you would die in your house from the fighting. If you tried to run away, they would catch you and kill you, and hang your body from the electricity pylon as a warning. Four of my neighbours were caught trying to escape, and I saw them hanging from the electricity pylon. They were left for days, just hanging there. They would hang between 15 and 50 people from the pylons.”

The fear of being killed by ISIS while escaping meant that many civilians had to wait until military clashes reached their peak. Once ISIS fighters were busy fighting, civilians would run directly through the front lines to reach Iraqi forces.

Iraqi and coalition wiped out surrounding houses when attacking ISIS targets

Amnesty’s report also documents a pattern of attacks in which US-led coalition and Iraqi forces appear not to have struck their intended military targets, instead killing and injuring civilians, and destroying or damaging civilian objects. In some cases, civilian deaths and injuries appear to have resulted from an inappropriate choice of weapons or a failure to take necessary precautions to verify that a target was actually a military objective. 

Even in attacks that seem to have struck their intended military target, the use of unnecessarily powerful weapons or failure to take necessary precautions appears to have resulted in needless loss of civilian lives. For example, on 17 March a US airstrike on the Mosul al-Jadida neighbourhood in order to kill two ISIS snipers also killed at least 105 civilians. Regardless of whether - as the US Department of Defense has maintained - secondary explosions occurred in this instance, it should have been clear to those responsible that the risk posed to civilians by using a 500lb bomb was clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. Mohamed, from al-Tenak neighbourhood in west Mosul, told Amnesty: “The strikes targeted the ISIS snipers. A strike would destroy an entire house of two storeys. They shelled during night and day. They hit so many houses. They’d hit one house and also destroy the two houses on either side. They killed a huge number of people.”

UK’s role in the attacks

The UK Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon has recently said that the Royal Air Force has conducted more than 700 airstrikes as part of the Mosul military operation, while the Ministry of Defence has repeatedly claimed that it has “seen no evidence” of civilian casualties as a result of the attacks. Amnesty has written to Sir Michael requesting information on how precisely the MoD ascertains whether its airstrikes in Iraq have resulted in civilian casualties.

Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK Director, said:

“The MoD’s claim that hundreds of RAF airstrikes in and around densely-populated Mosul have resulted in absolutely no civilian casualties is at best implausible.

“At the moment, the UK’s line on civilian airstrike deaths amounts to wishful thinking - they’ve heard no evil and they’ve seen no evil. It’s not credible and it’s not good enough.

“Instead of repeating its mantra about having ‘no evidence’ of civilian casualties, the MoD should set up a proper process for investigating what its airstrikes are actually doing on the ground.

“Whatever the military case for the UK conducting airstrikes on ISIS targets in Mosul, it needs to do this within the parameters of the laws of war - meaning avoiding indiscriminate attacks and ones likely to result in disproportionate civilian deaths and injuries.”
 

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