After nine gruelling months of battle, Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s declaration of “victory” against Islamic State (IS) in Mosul this week had a definitive ring to it.
This was it. More than three years since IS fighters swept into Iraq’s second-largest city in mid-2014, the capital of its supposed caliphate was back in Iraqi government hands. Mr al-Abadi himself was pictured in victory celebrations, waving an Iraqi flag and announcing the end of a “terrorist state of falsehood”.
Except, for one thing: the fighting was far from over. Days after al-Abadi’s announcement the US-led coalition and Iraqi forces were still reportedly bombing what they said were IS positions.
And more importantly, whenever the fighting actually ends, a truly monumental task of rebuilding lives and infrastructure stands before the already-overstretched Iraqi authorities. It’s hard to accurately judge the crushing extent of damage to the city, though comparisons to Dresden or Stalingrad abound, and some estimates put the rebuild cost at more than $1bn.
By any measure, the human cost has also been immense. While the true scale of civilian casualties in Mosul may never be known, it could run into the tens of thousands. Many of these deaths are undoubtedly the result of the trademark and utterly repellent IS atrocities. Not only did the terror group summarily shoot dead anyone they saw attempting to leave the besieged city (suspending bodies from electricity pylons as a warning to others), they herded people into harm’s way, moving large groups into areas of west Mosul where the battle raged most fiercely.
Meanwhile, in a wholesale use of human shields, they also trapped extended families of Mosul residents – plus displaced people from other parts of northern Iraq – into homes where doors were welded shut. IS men would drive up to houses in pick-up trucks with generators and welding equipment, sealing people into buildings which would become death-traps.
But IS cruelty isn’t new, and can’t have come as any surprise to advancing Iraqi and coalition forces. It’s important to emphasise that however unspeakable, IS outrages against the beleaguered population of Mosul could never, in any way, absolve Iraqi and coalition forces of their responsibility to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties as they blasted their way into the city.
Did the forces of Operation Inherent Resolve, taxed by IS suicide bombers and highly-mobile snipers, as well as the endlessly perplexing difficulties of street-by-street fighting, cross the line when it came to their tactics in Mosul? Emphatically, yes. Having talked to scores of west Mosul residents, as well as military and other experts, it’s clear to us that Iraqi and coalition forces failed to take adequate measures to protect civilians. Instead they subjected them to a terrifying barrage of fire from weapons that should never have been used in densely-populated civilian areas.
They relied heavily on improvised rocket-assisted munitions (IRAMs), inaccurate and with often devastating wide-area effects. When there were reports of IS snipers, the coalition would frequently deploy overwhelming and excessive firepower, flattening not just the intended target but surrounding houses as well. (They even compounded the problem by telling residents to stay in their homes instead of attempting to flee to safety).
The 17 March US attack in west Mosul’s Jadida neighbourhood (reportedly killing at least 100 civilians) is just the most infamous of these incidents. We documented at least 426 civilian deaths from only 45 Iraqi and coalition attacks – an extremely worrying casualty rate. Groups like Airwars have calculated that attacks launched by Iraqi and coalition forces between mid-February and mid-June may have caused more than 5,800 civilian deaths.
One crucial failing of the Iraqi and coalition forces’ tactics is that they failed to adapt. Even after IS had driven civilians into the eye of the storm in west Mosul, Iraqi and coalition forces continued to pound densely-populated urban environments with imprecise weapons.
Since we published a report assessing the civilian catastrophe in west Mosul, members of the US-led military coalition have been lining up to criticise Amnesty. The British Major General Rupert Jones, deputy commander of the international anti-IS coalition, has called our report “deeply irresponsible”, “naïve” and “disrespectful” to the Iraqi government. He’s talked about the “extraordinary lengths” the coalition supposedly went to in ensuring that “when we strike we only kill the enemy”. And despite the mounting stories of civilian suffering and shocking images, showing scenes of apocalyptic destruction in Mosul, Jones claims the battle involved “the most sophisticated targeting and strike process in history”.
Frankly, we’ve heard these claims before. In conflict after conflict. Though the facts on the ground tell a different story. But if the coalition is indeed so confident of its superior tactics, it should have little problem in acceding to our call for an independent commission to fully investigate all allegations of war crimes in the battle for Mosul.
Meanwhile, stretching plausibility to breaking point, the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has recently claimed that some 700 RAF airstrikes in and around Mosul have resulted in not a single civilian casualty. We’ve written to him requesting information on the basis for this claim. It’s not clear to us how exactly the MoD ascertains whether its Iraqi airstrikes have killed civilians.
To be sure, the depredations of IS are legion. And no one should underestimate the inhuman ruthlessness of its tactics or the difficulty of mounting a military engagement with its well-dug-in fighters without endangering civilians. But flag-waving aside, Mosul has been an utter catastrophe for civilians. Is it irresponsible to say so? Hardly. Real irresponsibility lies in waging war without due regard to civilian safety and then attacking those that point this out.
Allan Hogarth is Amnesty International UK’s head of policy and government affairs