Iraqi forces say recent gains against the Islamic State group in Mosul’s Old City have been aided by airstrikes, despite reports of high civilian casualties and warnings from human rights groups about using large munitions in densely populated area.
As strikes pummelled the Old City Sunday, hundreds of civilians fled. Many were badly injured and had to be carried out over mounds of rubble by family members. Deeper inside the district, narrow alleyways were littered with bodies.
“The Islamic State [group] are using the rooftops of high buildings to snipe the Iraqi forces while they are keeping the people inside their basements,” said France 24 correspondent Mustapha Salim. “There is no way to make sure from the air whether this house is empty or not. It is causing a lot of civilian casualties among the people.”
Special forces Lieutenant colonel Muhanad al-Timimi said over the past three days his forces have carried out about 20 airstrikes a day on IS group-held territory within the area of operation – a portion of the Old City measuring about one square kilometre in size.
“It’s because we have a lot of enemy forces here,” he said, conceding the number of munitions used was relatively high.
Half buried in a mound of rubble beside a strike crater, limbs protruded, darkened by dust and rotting in the summer heat. The pile of rocks was once a brightly painted house with a courtyard garden.
“Those were two Daesh fighters,” said Sergeant Ali Mehdi, a member of al-Timimi’s security detail, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
When the small unit rounded another narrow street, the men silently stepped over the body of an elderly man lying in a pool of fresh blood.
A warning cracked over the radio that an airstrike was called in on a position just 50 metres away and the men ducked into a cleared home. When they emerged, two more bodies, in civilian clothes and without weapons, lay in the next street.
Throughout the fight against the Islamic State group, the US-led coalition has largely relied on airstrikes to enable Iraqi ground forces to advance. But in previous battles, civilians were evacuated from front lines. In Mosul, the Iraqi government told the city’s estimated one million people to stay put to avoid massive displacement.
Iraqi forces have repeatedly requested airstrikes in Mosul, often to kill teams of just two or three Islamic State group fighters armed with light weapons.
Manhal Munir was sheltering in the basement of his home with his extended family when Islamic State group fighters took a position on his roof. They were targeted by an airstrike Sunday morning. The house collapsed.
“I just pulled my youngest daughter out with me,” Munir said at a nearby medic station, the toddler on his lap. “My mother was stuck between two large blocks of cement. We tried to free her,” he said, still covered in dust and his eyes red with grief. “After two hours she died.”
In the weeks leading up to the operation to retake the Old City the UN and human rights groups warned the Iraqi government against the use of explosive weapons with wide effects in the Old City area, where houses are tightly packed and the civilian population is dense.
“In the crowded Old City, using explosive weapons with wide area effects puts civilians at excessive risk,” Lama Fakih of Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
The coalition did not immediately respond to a request from the Associated Press as to what munitions are being used.
“The Coalition always seeks to use weapons that are proportional to the target to minimise collateral damage,” the US-led coalition said in a written statement.
“Nearly all munitions released have been precision guided to ensure we achieve the desired effects,” the statement continued. “The avoidance of civilian casualties is our highest priority.”
A ‘terrible cost’
In a report Friday, Airwars (an organisation that tracks the international air war against the Islamic State group and other groups in Iraq, Syria and Libya) said they “presently estimate that between 900 and 1,200 civilians were likely killed by Coalition air and artillery strikes over the course of the eight-month [Mosul] campaign.”
The group said the territorial gains in Mosul come at a “terrible cost”.
“According to some sources from the Civil Defense of Mosul, they are evacuating tens of bodies every single day,” Salim said. “There are still bodies under the rubble that they can’t reach yet because of the fighting.”
The United Nations estimates that tens of thousands of civilians are still trapped inside the Old City.
Iraqi forces launched the operation to retake the Old City – the Islamic State group’s last stand in Iraq’s second-largest city – in mid-June after eight months of grueling battles across Mosul’s eastern half and around the city’s western edge.
Iraq’s Prime Minister declared an end to the Islamic State Group’s so-called caliphate in late June and pledged victory was “near” after Iraqi forces retook the landmark al-Nuri mosque in the Old City.
Iraq’s federal police declared a partial victory Sunday, announcing they had completed “the liberation of our sector,” according to spokesman Captain Bassam Khadim.
Iraq’s special forces are now just 450 metres from the river Tigris that roughly divides Mosul in half, according to Major General Sami al-Aridi.
“For us, the airstrikes are better than artillery because they allow us to target the enemy accurately,” said special forces Brigadier General Haider Fadhil. “They help us minimise civilian casualties and casualties among our own forces.”
(FRANCE 24 with AP)
Date created : 2017-07-03