Mosul deaths underline urgency to protect civilians
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.