Fazel Hawramy and Raya Jalabi / The Guardian – 2015-05-17 02:15:39
Slaughter of Iraqi Family in
Suspected US-led Air Strike Hints at Cost of War
Fazel Hawramy and Raya Jalabi / The Guardian
IRBIL and NEW YORK (May 14, 2015) — Mustafa was jolted awake by the sound of two large explosions. As the ground shook beneath him, he could hear a young woman screaming in the distance.
Bolting out of his front door, he found several hundred men running through the dark towards an olive farm on the outskirts of the village of Fadhiliya, 10 miles north of Mosul. The farm, home to a family of seven, had been hit by an air strike some time after midnight, the local imam said.
Outside the ruins of the two-story farmhouse — now a tangled mess of iron rods and concrete slabs — the men found 16-year-old Lina Laith Hazem in hysterics. They sifted through the rubble for hours, looking for other survivors amid the surrounding chaos. They found only one, Shahd Hazem Abdulla, Lina’s 25-year-old aunt. “We used our bare hands to pull the bodies out,” said Mustafa, a farmer in his late 40s.
By 9am on 4 April, five corpses had been pulled from the wreckage, including a pregnant woman and an eight-year-old child. All five were members of the same family: Hazem Abdulla Shahin, 69; his wife Nadya Nouri Dawoud, 60; their son Laith Hazem Abdulla, 43; his pregnant bride Hana Ali Abdulla, 43, and their eight-year-old daughter Danya Laith Hazem.
“We wrapped the dead in blankets and buried them the same day,” said Rahim, a relative of the family who helped uncover the bodies.
Since 8 August, a US-led coalition including Canada, Britain, France, Jordan and other countries, has carried out several thousand air strikes, as part of its campaign against the Islamic State militant group, which last year declared it had established a caliphate across vast swaths of Iraq and Syria.
The air strikes have played an important role in reversing Isis advances across Iraq, particularly in the north, where Kurdish forces have regained hundreds of square miles from the militant group. The Kurds have credited the air strike campaign with eliminating several Islamic State senior operatives. Last week, the Guardian revealed that Isis’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been severely injured by an air strike.
Until last week, the US denied that any civilians had been killed in either Syria or Iraq during the nine-month campaign. Following reports that 52 civilians had been killed in an air strike in Syria, the Pentagon announced that it would launch an investigation.
But watchdog groups, like the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, warn that many more civilian casualties have gone uncounted. By SOHR’s count, at least 66 civilians have been killed by coalition air strikes in Syria alone since last September.
A local Iraqi member of parliament said he was in no doubt that the Abdulla Shahin family were killed by a coalition air strike.
“It was a mistake,” Mala Salim Juma Mohammad said. “The coalition needs to compensate the family adequately.” Juma said that although he had not known the family personally he had ascertained they had no connection to militants.
Chris Woods, the founder of Airwars.org, a not-for-profit transparency project aimed at tracking and archiving the international air war against Islamic State estimates that at least 167 — and as many as 455 — people have been killed during more than 2,100 air strikes in Iraq.
“It’s very difficult to be precise about civilian casualties in the context of a fast-moving air war, in which those areas being bombed by the coalition are firmly under the control of Islamic State/Daesh,” said Woods.
“What is absolutely clear is that coalition claims of no confirmed civilian deaths are untenable. The US-led coalition needs to be far more open about who it is killing — and to swiftly admit its mistakes when strikes go wrong.”
Major Curtis J Kellogg, a spokesman for US Central Command — which oversees US military operations in Iraq and Syria — confirmed that a coalition air strike against “two Isil fighting positions” was launched in the vicinity of Fadhiliya on 4 April, but would not give further details. He added that Centcom is aware of the allegations that the Abdulla Shahin family had been killed, and is “looking into this further”.
General Tahseen Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Iraqi ministry of defence said that he was aware of the 4 April air strike on Fadhiliya, but was not sure whether it had been launched by the coalition or the Iraqi air force itself.
“There is a process before an air strike is launched,” Ibrahim said. “We need to have the intelligence in place before we authorise an air strike. We work closely with the coalition forces.”
But an Iraqi air force pilot said that the Iraqi air force only carries out reconnaissance missions, not air strikes north of Mosul.
Kellogg said that Centcom “worked harder” than any other military to be precise in the application of its air strikes. “We have significant mitigation measures in place within the targeting process and during the conduct of operations to reduce the potential risks of collateral damage and civilian casualties.”
But he said Centcom has four active investigations into five civilian casualty allegations at present, two in Iraq and two in Syria. An allegation can involve more than one alleged civilian casualty, but Kellogg said he would not elaborate until the investigations were complete.
The deaths of the Abdulla Shahin family, was but the latest misfortune for Fadhiliya, which was overrun by Islamic State militants in August 2014.
Many of the village’s residents, including the five victims of the air strike, were members of the Shabak ethnic minority. Unlike other minorities such as Christians, Turkomans and Yazidis — who are considered devil worshippers by Isis militants — the 300,000 Shabaks are predominantly Sunni Muslims, and have largely escaped being targeted by Isis. But some Shabak are Shia, and have been targeted for abuse by the militants. Many Fadhiliya residents told the Guardian they did not initially flee the Isis advance because they had nowhere else to go and because they did not consider themselves a target.
Both Mustafa and Rahim said that since Isis arrived in Fadhiliya, a “few dozen” villagers had joined the militant group. But the men, who still live in Fadhiliya, denied there were any Isis units stationed near or around Hazem Abdulla’s olive farm.
But all current and former residents who spoke with the Guardian agreed that Hazem Abdulla and his family had no links with the militant group.
A relative of Hazem — who asked not to be named because some of his relatives still live in the village — told the Guardian that his uncle had no relationship with the militants.
“[The coalition] are killing innocent people in the name of fighting terrorism,” he said.
But he said that after the air strike, the militants used the incident in their propaganda, telling residents of the village that the attack revealed the US-led coalition’s “true” intentions for the region.
“The incident has been hard on the village,” said Mustafa, the neighbour. “It was a shock to everyone. Hazem was a good man.
The day after the bodies were recovered, relatives of Hazem who had previously fled Fadhiliya, held a memorial service for their deceased in a village near Dohuk.
A sombre black banner hung in the village, the names of the dead written in yellow.
“They were martyred with the fire from a coalition strike in the village of Fadhiliya on 04/04/2015,” the banner read. “We come from Allah, and to Him we shall return.”
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