Iraq Suspends Mosul Offensive after US Airstrike Atrocity
March 27, 2017
Martin Chulov and Emma Graham-Harrison / The Guardian
The Iraqi government has ordered the US to halt air operations over Mosul. The move comes as international outrage continues to grow over US airstrikes that killed at least 150 people in Mosul's Jadida neighborhood -- one of the deadliest bombing raids for civilians since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Bombs released by US-led coalition forces buried more than a hundred people in the ruins of three houses and raised fresh questions about US rules of engagement.
NBC Nightly News (March 25, 2017)
Iraq Suspends Mosul Offensive after Coalition Airstrike Atrocity
Martin Chulov and Emma Graham-Harrison / The Guardian
MOSUL (March 25, 2017) -- Iraqi military leaders have halted their push to recapture west Mosul from Islamic State as international outrage grew over the civilian toll from airstrikes that killed at least 150 people in a single district of the city.
The attack on the Mosul Jadida neighbourhood is thought to have been one of the deadliest bombing raids for civilians since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Rescuers were still pulling bodies from the rubble on Saturday, more than a week after the bombs landed, when the US-led coalition confirmed that its aircraft had targeted Isis fighters in the area.
They carried out the attack on 17 March "at the request of the Iraqi security forces", and have now launched a formal investigation into reports of civilian casualties, the coalition said.
British planes were among those operating in western Mosul at the time. Asked if they could have been involved in the airstrikes, a spokesman did not rule out the possibility of British involvement, saying: "We are aware of reports [of civilian casualties] and will support the coalition investigation."
There had been no reports of a UK role in any civilian casualties in more than two years of fighting Isis, he added. "We have not seen evidence that we have been responsible for civilian casualties so far. Through our rigorous targeting processes we will continue to seek to minimise the risk of civilian casualties, but that risk can never be removed entirely."
A UK report on the 17 March fighting, which was issued just a couple of days later, described "very challenging conditions with heavy cloud". Tornado jets were sent to "support Iraqi troops advancing inside western Mosul" in intense urban fighting, where crews had to "engage targets perilously close to the Iraqi troops whom they were assisting".
They used Paveway guided missiles to hit five targets. The coalition said in a separate statement it had carried out four airstrikes aimed at "three Isis tactical units". They destroyed more than 50 vehicles and 25 "fighting positions".
The deaths have intensified concerns over up to 400,000 Mosul residents who are still packed into the crowded western half of the city, as Iraqi security forces backed by foreign air power advance on Isis's last major stronghold in the country.
Civil defence workers say they have pulled more than 140 bodies from the ruins of three buildings in Mosul Jadida and believe that dozens more remain under the rubble of one building, a large home with a once cavernous basement, in which up to 100 people had hidden last Friday morning.
Local people at the site told the Observer that the enormous damage inflicted on the homes and much of the surrounding area had been caused by airstrikes, which battered the neighbourhood in the middle of a pitched battle with Isis members, who were under attack from Iraqi forces.
The UN's humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Lise Grande, said: "We are stunned by this terrible loss of life."
Chris Woods, director of monitoring group Airwars, said: "The Jadida incident alone is the worst toll of a single [airstrike] incident that I can recall in decades. The coalition's argument that it doesn't target noncombatants risks being devalued when so many civilians are being killed in west Mosul."
He warned that the deaths, and other recent attacks in Syria that have claimed dozens of lives, risked turning public sentiment against the coalition. "We have until recently always credited the coalition for taking care to avoid civilian casualties, compared with the Russians. But since the last months of 2016 you have seen this steep climb in civilian casualties and public sentiment has turned very sharply against the US-led coalition."
As the scale of the disaster became apparent, Iraqi military sources confirmed that they had been ordered not to launch new operations.
The Australian defence force issued a statement on Sunday in response to questions about its involvement. "While there are no specific allegations against Australian aircraft, Australia will fully support the coalition-led (Operation Inherent Resolve) investigation into these allegations."
Mosul Jadida residents said three homes had taken direct hits from airstrikes and others had been damaged by debris and shelling. "They started in the morning and they continued till around 2pm," said Mustafa Yeheya. "There were Isis on the roof of several of the buildings and they were in the streets fighting. But the strange thing is that the house they were hiding in, their military room, was not even hit. None of their bases was."
Journalists were banned from entering west Mosul on Saturday and Iraqi commanders could not be contacted. Iraqi and US forces have previously said that Isis deliberately blended among the civilian population and, in some cases, fighters were posted near civilian targets in a bid to increase casualties and slow the offensive against them.
A United States Central Command statement said: "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."
Muawiya Ismael, who said he had lost six members of his clan in the attack, said: "It is true that this was a battle zone and that Isis were here. They had about 15 people in the area, and they were in high positions. But they did not have heavy guns. Nothing that should justify an attack of this scale. It was not in proportion to the threat and soldiers could have fixed this."
Mosul's Children Were Shouting
Beneath the Rubble. Nobody Came
Martin Chulov / The Guardian
MOSUL (March 25, 2017) -- By the time rescuers finally arrived no one was left alive. For almost a week desperate neighbours had scraped through the rubble, searching for as many as 150 people who lay buried after three homes in a west Mosul suburb were destroyed by coalition airstrikes.
The full picture of the carnage continued to emerge on Friday, when at least 20 bodies were recovered. Dozens more are thought to remain buried in what could turn out to be the single most deadly incident for civilians in the war against Islamic State (Isis).
Rescuers at the scene in the suburb of Mosul Jadida said they had driven the 250 miles from Baghdad but had not been able to enter the area until Wednesday, five days after airstrikes hit the houses where local residents had been sheltering from fierce fighting between Iraqi forces and Isis.
Neighbours said at least 80 bodies had been recovered from one house alone, where people had been encouraged by local elders to take shelter. Rescuers were continuing to dig through the ruins, and the remains of two other houses nearby, which had also been pulverised in attacks that were described as "relentless and horrifying".
The US military said it was launching an investigation. Cololnel Joseph Scrocca, from the US-led command in Baghdad, said "the coalition has opened a formal civilian casualty credibility assessment on this allegation" from Mosul.
The destruction took place in a district that was last week a frontline in the battle for Mosul. Locals said militants had positioned a sniper on the roof of the home that had sheltered the largest number of people. It has raised fresh questions about rules of engagement in the war against the terror group, after two recent US airstrikes in Syria resulted in at least 90 casualties, nearly all of them thought to be civilian.
Residents in Mosul Jadida say no Isis members were hiding among the civilians, although dozens of militants had been attempting to defend the area from an attack by Iraqi special forces.
"We all know each other, and most of us are related," said Majid al-Najim, 65, as he stood next to the corpse of his nephew in a local cemetery. Gravediggers prepared the man's grave as people wept around him.
"And all of the families were in one of three houses. We are from the Jabour, Dulaim and Tai families. On that day, the airstrikes started around 8am. We originally hid in that house, but we left before the planes came back. There was three hours between us and death."
"The days after were horrible. There were children shouting under the rubble. Nobody came to help them. The police told us yesterday that there was nothing they could do."
Another man, Thanom Hander, who sat watching a digger scrape through twisted piles of masonry and metal, said his son and daughter-in-law had been the only two survivors locals had been able to rescue. The couple's two children died in the attack, and his daughter-in-law had lost both her legs.
"They thought the basement was safe," he said. "That morning, I heard the bombing, and I ran to the house. There were civilians shouting. There was nothing I could do."
Speaking from the clinic where he was being treated, the man's son Ali Hander said: "There was a lot of bombing above us, and then I started to feel everything collapse around us. We were buried for 10 hours until the neighbours dug us out. I lost my children."
Isis has been widely accused of using civilians as human shields by positioning guns and fighters on top of houses. Most residents at the scene said that while the group's members were indeed on the roof of at least one of the homes, those who took shelter below did so willingly.
Mustafa Alwan, a local shopkeeper disagreed. "My cousin and my sister went to that house," he said, pointing at hulking ruins being methodically probed by diggers. "Isis forced them to go there. They pointed guns at them and made them enter. I lost them both."
Another man, Subhan Ismail Ibrahim, said his wife and three children had been killed in the same house. "One child was four, the other one year old and the third less than three months. Speaking with a stony calm, he added: "I have lost them all, and the world must know what happened to them."
Iraqi officers have been largely responsible for requesting airstrikes, which are then coordinated with US-run operations centres after approval from senior commanders. Coalition air spotters often guide the bombs to designated targets.
Donald Trump earlier this year ordered a review of rules of engagement set by his predecessor, which had insisted on "near certainty" that there be no civilian casualties before airstrikes could be sanctioned. While it has not yet been completed, there are mounting concerns that the very fact a review has been ordered may have already led to the threshold being lowered.
In response to an earlier query about the reported mass-casualty airstrike on Raqqa this week, the US military command in Iraq denied any "recent changes in operational procedures for approving airstrikes under the past or current administration". But it said that in December, the war's commander, Lt Gen Stephen Townsend, "delegated approval authority for certain strikes to battlefield commanders" in order to accelerate aid to Iraqi forces facing a grueling battle in Mosul. Those strikes "were still subject to the same scrutiny and due diligence," the command said.
At the graveyard, Majid al-Najim said: "Is an Isis sniper being on a roof enough of a reason to send a plane with a large bomb to destroy a house? They hit it many times. They wanted to destroy everything inside.
"Then after that, we needed equipment to rescue the people. Just one bulldozer. Anything. The corrupt government officials could not help us, and would not if they could. This is an enormous crime."
In a nearby Iraqi base, a special forces major shifted uncomfortably when details of the disaster were relayed to him. "This is not in our area and we know nothing about it," he said. "We have lost people too, around 20 colleagues fighting an enemy of all the people." After a while, he shrugged and said: "What can we do? It's war."
Additional reporting by Salem Rizk and Spencer Ackerman in New York.
Shell-shocked Mosul Survivors Tell of Intense Airstrikes
Martin Chulov / The Guardian
HAMAMA Al-ALIL, near Mosul (March 26, 2017) -- Covered in dust, their hands raw from digging, Ali Assad and his cousin made a desperate choice -- to leave their family under the rubble of their west Mosul home and flee while they still could.
The two men were among hundreds to be evacuated on Sunday, during a lull in the fighting prompted by outrage over the high civilian toll caused by multiple airstrikes that have battered the city and its trapped population over the past eight days.
With the ground war now suspended as a result, families that have sheltered in ruins or taken their chances in what is left of their homes have been leaving Mosul in droves, many arriving shell shocked and starving at refugee processing centres on its southern outskirts, where they spoke of more than a week of terror.
"There are six of my family still under our house," said Assad, 32, cupping his raw hands. "My father, I saw him die in front of me, my brother, two sisters and two cousins. My mother survived, but then she was hit by some other explosion and a concrete slab fell on her. She's badly hurt."
Both men said that 15 people remained buried under three homes in the Yarmouk area of Mosul after a series of airstrikes on 22 March. The attacks took place amid a barrage of strikes by jets in support of a ground push by Iraqi forces that started around 17 March.
On that afternoon, the Mosul Jadida neighbourhood was also repeatedly hit, leading to what could be the highest civilian toll of any airstrike in the region since the invasion of Iraq 14 years ago. At least 150 people are thought to have been killed, many of whom died during the five days it took for help to arrive.
At least 80 people are believed to have died while taking shelter in the basement of one of the houses hit, the largest in the neighbourhood, in which local families had sought refuge.
Assad said dozens of people remained buried under rubble in the Yarmouk and Jadida neighbourhoods. "There is no civilian defence, no rescue teams. It is only us and our hands. Everyone has to fend for themselves."
The lack of a coordinated rescue effort is being blamed by local authorities on the fighting, which has ground to a stalemate as Isis attempts to consolidate its losses and dig in around the centre of west Aleppo, a densely packed area of homes and narrow roads.
Numerous survivors of the fighting have spoken of people, among them children, shouting for help from the ruins, but having no help from local authorities, or access to digging equipment to use by themselves.
"There was not a thing we could do," said another evacuee, Abdul Wahab Hashimi, who said his neighbours' bodies remained buried in the ruins of their home in the Mansour district. Residents of west Mosul had been seen as the most vulnerable population in the fight against the terror group. Up to 350,000 people are thought to remain in the city, some being used by Isis as human shields and others unable to flee until the fighting opens up a front for them.
Even then, the escape is typically a dangerous walk through a battlefield, before a long fraught journey to a refugee camp. Jonathan Whittall, project co-ordinator for an MSF medical centre south of Mosul, said: "We have . . . witnessed a disturbing trend of some patients reaching our hospital after a significant delay of up to four days.
"One father and son that I met recently had been trapped under rubble for four days after an airstrike and they reached us exhausted, hungry and bewildered. Others who are wounded further away from the front lines into west Mosul can only reach us after the frontline has moved and they are able to escape. We are very concerned about the patients who are unable to reach us and whose treatment is delayed."
The medical centre, the largest in the area, was nearly empty on Sunday for the first time since it opened several months ago. Since then, MSF alone has treated 1,500 people for conflict-related trauma, many of the cases severe or life threatening.
Medics supporting the Mosul operation said it is difficult to be specific about the proportion of casualties they are treating who were wounded by airstrikes as opposed to other weapons of war. However, the high number of people buried under rubble indicates that attacks from jets make up a significant component.
US military officials have acknowledged that the strike on Mosul Jadida was carried out by coalition jets and said it was requested by Iraqi officers. US Central Command has launched a formal investigation. While ground fighting stopped on Sunday, fighter jets were still present in the skies above Mosul. US officials said five airstrikes targeting Isis near Mosul were carried out on Saturday.
At the refugee processing centre, Brig Hisham al-Assadi, a senior intelligence official for Iraq's special operations forces, said: "We try very hard to limit casualties, but Isis blends among them. They are happy when civilians are killed. This is war and we wish it was different. They don't speak, they don't say a word when they get here," he said of the refugees. "We tell them, 'you don't have to fear any more,' then we take them to the camps."
On the road past the rubbish-strewn yard where army trucks disgorge Mosul's latest refugees, an American convoy rumbled past, while more jets roared overhead. Their presence went unnoticed by men and boys who lined up to receive water and no one seemed prepared to blame any side for their misery. A father approached the Guardian and said: "My little boy loves the taste of American cakes, do you have any?"
Additional reporting by Salem Rizk
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