The Iraqi government wanted to avoid a refugee crisis, so Hind Amir Ahmad did what the pamphlets dropped from the sky told her to do: She, like a quarter-million others, didn’t flee for a camp in the desert outside the city. Instead, she stayed with her family as U.S.-backed forces fought to boot the Islamic State out of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
“We were sleeping when the house literally collapsed on us,” she told Amnesty International. It wasn't pamphlets dropping from the sky anymore, but bombs delivered by a U.S.-led coalition and its Iraqi allies. "It was a miracle none of us was killed."
There were several airstrikes that day in December 2016 — the U.S. military boasted of “destroying three fighting positions” and “a bunker,” among other objects — but there was only to be one miracle for Ahmad and her family. After fleeing to a relative’s home, they were struck again. “Almost everyone in the house was killed,” she said. “It took us six days to find only pieces of their bodies, which we buried in a mass grave.”
The fight for Mosul began in October 2016, with Iraqi forces, backed by U.S. airpower and military advisors, declaring the eastern half of the city "liberated" in January 2017. The fight continues in the west, but those who survived the U.S. airstrikes and oppression of the Islamic State haven't received closure.
“I don’t know why we were bombed,” Ahmad said. “All I know is that I have lost everyone who was dearest to me.”
A U.S.-led coalition has been bombing the Islamic State since August 2014, carrying out more than 19,200 strikes in Iraq and Syria since then, according to the monitoring group Airwars, and likely killing over 2,700 civilians.
However, “The intensity of strikes in 2017 — notably around Raqqa and Mosul — has no precedent,” according to Airwars’ Samuel Oakford.
Iraqi officials told The New Arab that over 500 civilians have been killed in the last two weeks alone.
That uptick in strikes has meant more casualties, with Airwars reporting the U.S.-led coalition — which includes France, Britain, and Saudi Arabia, among others — is on pace to kill nearly twice as many civilians in Iraq this year as it did in 2016.
In March alone there have been 816 alleged civilian deaths in Iraq due to U.S.-led airstrikes, compared to 105 in December 2016.
At a minimum, according to the United Nations, 3,227 civilians have been killed “in acts of terrorism, violence and armed conflict” across Iraq between October 2016 and March 2017, when the offensive to retake Mosul began. After reports of over 100 dead from a set of airstrikes this month, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Lise Grande, said she was “stunned” by the loss of life.
In December, the U.N. said its emergency relief fund for Mosul was only 57 percent funded, with President Donald Trump pledging to cut aid to the global governing body — while at least temporarily barring Iraqi refugees from resettling in the U.S.. According to the U.N., since October 2016 over 350,000 people have fled Mosul, home to 2 million people before it was seized by the Islamic State in June 2014.
In part that has to do with the nature of urban warfare and the unavoidable civilian costs that airstrikes on urban centers incur. However, the rise in alleged deaths coincides with a reported desire on the part of the Trump administration to loosen Obama-era restrictions on the use of force aimed at minimizing “collateral damage” — perhaps explaining the rise in casualties far from any big cities, as Human Rights Watch's Ole Solvang speculated in an interview with ATTN:.
The worst of it in Mosul came March 17, when “up to 150 people were reported killed in a coalition airstrike,” according to Amnesty International. The human rights group says the strikes may amount to war crimes.
The New York Times reported that the intended target of the strike were Islamic State snipers on the roofs of homes.
“Evidence gathered on the ground in East Mosul points to an alarming pattern of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside,” Donatella Rovera, an Amnesty researcher who traveled to Mosul to investigate the claims, said in a press release. “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.”
Even if some deaths are unavoidable, the horror inflicted on the population of Mosul from all sides appears to have been exacerbated by the Iraqi government's insistence that its residents remain in the city. As the Los Angeles Times reported last year, “the government air-dropped leaflets and broadcast messages on television urging residents to shelter in place,” in part “because camps for displaced people were already crowded.” Those who heeded this advice, like Hind Amir Ahmad, may have fared no better if they had tried to escape Mosul, but they certainly were not protected by those promising her liberation.
Speaking to ATTN:, Rovera said "it was shocking to see how poor preparation for medical care for Mosul casualties was," when she was in the city last year. Though there was ample time for such preparation, efforts were focused instead on military operations, according to Rovera. It's "certainly possible," she said over Skype, that an inability or unwillingness to deal with a total exodus from the city led authorities to advise its residents to remain. Even so, that doesn't mean that the extent of the destruction seen today was inevitable. There is also the matter of tactics — of whether it is "necessary to use bombs which obliterate a three-storey house full of civilians to get some guys on the roof."
According to Amnesty International, “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 numbers of civilian casualties." That they carried them out anyway could be a war crime, with the human rights group demanding an investigation into the “appalling” human toll of U.S. air power.
U.S. Central Command, which oversees the U.S.-led interventions in Iraq and Syria, did not respond to ATTN:'s request for comment, but in the past has said it investigates all credible claims of civilian deaths.
UPDATE: On Tuesday, CENTCOM emailed ATTN: the following statement:
The Coalition fully supports the decision of the government of Iraq to have citizens remains in their homes. We have seen reports as recent as the last few days of ISIS targeting civilians trying to flee. We will continue to assess the situation as we move forward and provide the government of Iraq with our best advise to defeat ISIS while preserving civilian life and infrastructure.
The death of innocent civilians in war is a terrible tragedy that weighs heavily on all of us. That is why the Coalition takes any allegation of possible civilian casualties, in any number, very seriously, and why we take a deliberate approach to assessing each and every allegation, and reporting those results publically.
The Coalition freely and transparently takes on the responsibility to act in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict. We set the highest standards for protecting civilians and our dedication, diligence and discipline in prosecuting our combat operations, while protecting civilians, is without precedence in the history of warfare.
Our enemy, ISIS, are evil and murderous butchers engaged in purposeful and mass slaughter. The Coalition respects human life, which is why we will not abandon our partners in their time of need or because of ISIS's inhumane tactics of terrorizing civilians, using human shields, and fighting from protected sites such as schools, hospitals, religious sites and civilian neighborhoods. And ISIS will continue to cause massive human suffering if the Coalition and its partners do not prevail.