Mosul deaths underline urgency to protect civilians

Sunday 02/04/2017
Nowhere safe. Iraqis look at the damage in the aftermath of heavy fighting in Mosul’s old city, on March 30th. (AFP)

London - A spike in civilian deaths during the US-backed Iraqi offensive to recap­ture Mosul from the Is­lamic State (ISIS) led to renewed calls to spare the lives of people trapped in the city.
Iraqi civil defence forces said 263 people were killed during a March 17th US air strike in Mosul’s al-Jadida district. The US strikes, requested by Iraqi forces, reportedly targeted an ISIS sniper on a building that housed civilians.
The US military conducted a for­mal investigation into the incident, acknowledging that the coalition it leads probably had a role in the deaths but adding that ISIS was like­ly to blame.
Iraqi officials, who are also look­ing into the deaths, accused mili­tants of setting booby-traps in the building. ISIS is known to have used civilians as human shields and fired on those who tried to flee.
US Army General Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, said the rules of engagement had not been relaxed but admitted that avoiding civilian casualties is diffi­cult when advancing into crowded areas of the Old City in western Mo­sul.
“I do agree that, as we move into these urban environments, it is go­ing to become more and more dif­ficult to apply extraordinarily high standards [to avoid civilian casual­ties] for the things that we’re doing, although we will try,” Votel said.
An average of 500 bombs were dropped on western Mosul each week during March, the Times of London reported, citing US military figures.
UN High Commissioner for Hu­man Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called for “an urgent review of tac­tics to ensure that the impact on civilians is reduced to an absolute minimum”.
Amnesty International said evi­dence in Mosul “points to an alarm­ing pattern of US-led coalition air strikes that 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,” Donatella Rovera, senior crisis re­sponse adviser at Amnesty Interna­tional, said in a release.
“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,” she added.
Rovera said ISIS “shamefully re­sorts to using civilians as human shields, a serious violation of the laws of war that amounts to a war crime” but she added that the mili­tants’ “use of human shields does not absolve Iraqi and coalition forces from their obligation not to launch disproportionate attacks”.
Witnesses interviewed by the New York Times said Iraqi forces knew civilians were in the targeted area. One witness said he and his family hid in a basement to seek ref­uge from the air strikes, not because they were forced by ISIS.
Iraqi parliament Speaker Salim al- Jabouri said the government should treat the killed civilians like “mar­tyrs” and compensate their families.
During a parliamentary meeting attended by Interior and Defence ministers, MP Hanan al-Fatlawi urged the government to stop look­ing for excuses for the US-led coali­tion before the facts come out.
“Why are you acting as lawyers for the international coalition?” she asked. “We don’t want an investiga­tion after four or five months… We want a swift investigation.”
At least 307 civilians — exclud­ing the casualties from the March 17th air strikes — were killed in the February 17th-March 22nd period, the United Nations estimated. An estimated 600,000 civilians remain in ISIS-held parts of western Mosul, the United Nations said.
About 800 Iraqi security forces have been killed and 4,600 wound­ed since operations began in the Mo­sul offensive last October, US figures indicate.