On 17 March 2017, an airstrike conducted in West Mosul by the US-led coalition against Islamic State (IS) appeared to have resulted in the death of over 200 civilians. A full investigation has been launched by the US military to ascertain the facts surrounding what appears to be their deadliest strike in three years. According to Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International, this latest incident is part of ‘an alarming pattern of US-led coalition airstrikes’ in the Iraqi city, ‘which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside.’ As the battle for the Western side of Mosul rages on, the high civilian death toll suggests violations of international human rights law are not exclusive to one side of the conflict.
Mosul, which with a population of 1.8 million is Iraq’s second largest city, first fell to IS fighters in July 2014 and is now the group’s last remaining urban stronghold in the country. The operation to reclaim the city was launched by the Iraqi government on 17 October 2016 with support from local and regional forces and an international coalition led by the US. As fighting has intensified, over 286,000 of Mosul’s residents have fled. Perhaps this number would be higher, if it were not for the official Iraqi government instruction that civilians should remain in their homes until troops arrive to liberate their neighbourhood.
In January 2017, after months of fighting, east Mosul was declared to be under the control of Iraqi government forces. Loss of life and damage to infrastructure in this part of the city was not as extensive, meaning recovery was slow but noticeable two months later. Businesses are reopening and roads are being cleared and rebuilt. In the west side of the city, by contrast, fighting has been intensifying in recent weeks. While coalition-backed forces appear to be winning the battle, it is already clear that this will come at a huge cost in terms of civilian lives. The UN has verified that between 17 February and 22 March alone, there were at least 307 civilian deaths and 273 injuries. The potential for unconfirmed or unreported deaths means that in reality these numbers may be much higher.
It is in this context that the deadly strike occurred on 17 March. One week after the incident, following a request for information by Iraqi security forces, US Central Command released a statement on their role. It begins by admitting that ‘The Coalition struck ISIS fighters and equipment, March 17, in West Mosul at the location corresponding to allegations of civilian casualties.’ It goes on to state that, ‘Our goal has always been for zero civilian casualties, but the Coalition will not abandon our commitment to our Iraqi partners because of ISIS’s inhuman tactics terrorising civilians, using human shields, and fighting from protected sites such as schools, hospitals, religious sites and civilian neighbourhoods.’
The statement does not address casualty numbers, which have been widely reported at over 200 civilians, and nor does it go into detail about the exact circumstances or decision-making process preceding the attack. The formal Civilian Casualty Credibility Assessment, which will go into more detail after evidence is collected, is not likely to be released for a number of weeks. However, eyewitness accounts tell of how 140 or more civilians were forced by IS militants into a house fitted with improvised explosive devices preceding the strike. This suggests that IS were using the human shield strategy they have been known to use before and which is mentioned in the US statement. It appears that the statement may be laying the groundwork for US forces to justify the killing of civilians by stating that the human shield tactic gave them no choice.
While Iraqi Vice President Osama Nujaifi has described the recent air strikes as ‘a humanitarian disaster,’ and that some members of the Iraqi forces perceive civilian deaths as a necessary evil. Major General Maan al-Saadi, a special forces commander who has called in airstrikes which have resulted in civilian casualties, expressed sadness for victims but argued that ‘in return for liberating the entire city of Mosul – I think it is a normal thing.’
In contrast, UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Raad Al Hussein has responded to the news of the strike by stating his belief that the US-led coalition cannot use IS tactics as a justification for breaking international law. He called the use of human shields by IS, ‘cowardly and disgraceful,’ but warned that the coalition has been guilty of falling into the ‘trap’ of retaliating by proceeding with air strikes. He has now called for a review of tactics employed by Iraqi and US-led forces in the battle for West Mosul, given the current, ‘lethal and disproportionate impact on civilians.’
Read’s comments allude to the fact that this strike is exceptional not because there were civilian casualties but only because they were in such high numbers. The Pentagon has already admitted responsibility for the deaths of a total of 220 civilians in Iraq and Syria since mid 2014. The London-based Airwars.org is one of several independent monitoring groups to produce a much higher estimate, suggesting the number may be closer to 3,000 civilians. There is growing concern that these numbers are drastically increasing, as 1000 of these deaths are believed to have occurred in March 2017 alone.
Some Iraqi officers interviewed have speculated that the US-led coalition has been quicker to sanction strikes on urban targets under the Trump administration, likely in an effort to bring fighting in cities like Mosul to an end as soon as possible. American officials have rejected the suggestion that there has been any fundamental policy change, but have stated that advisers do currently have more authority to call for strikes as the battle has reached such a crucial stage. President Trump is yet to make any statement on the increase in civilian deaths and the change in circumstances or tactics that might be responsible for this escalation.
While civilian deaths may be impossible to avoid entirely in densely populated warzones, the sheer number of deaths in Iraq and Syria resulting from coalition air strikes in recent months suggests that not enough is being done to protect civilian life. These strikes are not only at risk of breaking international law but are killing innocent people, sometimes in the homes and neighbourhoods where they have been ordered to remain by their own government. As the battle for Mosul continues, Iraqi and coalition forces are ethically obliged to review their tactics in the fight against IS and to reaffirm the protection of the local civilian population as a priority.