Dispatch

‘The Planes Have Destroyed Us’

America says its airstrikes are helping liberate Iraqis from the Islamic State. Residents of Mosul give a very different account.

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MOSUL, Iraq — Our pickup was inching along, weaving past craters in a road that brief eruptions of rain had turned into mud and streams of residents trying to escape the fighting, into the city’s western neighborhoods. Two local men then hopped in the truck, guiding us away from snipers ahead and to the neighborhood of al-Jadida. We descended from the truck into a street that was chillingly calm, and largely intact, but for the bullet marks pocking the walls.

The thud of explosives and the crack of rifles sounded only blocks away, as Iraqi Security Forces traded machine gun and artillery fire with Islamic State militants. One resident of the town, Samir Saleh, guided us deeper into his neighborhood. After a hasty walk past piles of rubble and burned-out cars, we reached a street where almost every house had been smashed. It was as though a wrecking ball had rolled down the street. Shattered concrete spilled out from the row of structures on either side and collapsed roofs sloped down to the ground, crushing vehicles parked on the street under them. The homes had been destroyed, Saleh said, by airstrikes.

Air power has been instrumental in the fight against the Islamic State since the war began in the summer of 2014. A U.S.-led coalition of 13 countries, along with Iraqi military forces, has tried to cripple the Islamic State’s operations and fighting abilities from the sky. The intensity of the air campaign has grown dramatically since military operations to oust Islamic State fighters from Mosul began in October.

These airstrikes have been a key reason that the Islamic State has lost over 50,000 square kilometers of territory in Syria and Iraq over the past three years, leaving the jihadi group holding on to less than 7 percent of Iraqi territory, according to the U.S. Central Command’s Operation Inherent Resolve media office. But these strikes are emerging as a double-edged sword, threatening to embitter Iraqi civilians and undermine the very gains they have enabled.

“If they stopped the airstrikes, that would be better,” said Ghania Hassan, a resident of the al-Jadida neighborhood. “The coalition has destroyed us.”

Hassan has good reason to hate the coalition airstrikes. On March 2, Islamic State militants barged into her home at 5 a.m. and took her and others to another home, where she was packed in with what she believes were well over 100 others in the basement. This may have been an attempt to use the civilians as human shields.

In the basement, Hassan and the group listened to Islamic State fighters firing machine guns nearby. She said that the owner of the house, a man named Abu Imad Ayad, knew his home might be struck by airplanes because of the Islamic State fighters firing all around it, and that he and his son climbed to the roof and tried to signal to the air force not to fire on them.

But at 11 a.m., a missile screeched in and the house crumbled on top of her. She said God is the only reason she survived.

“They went up to the roof and were saying, ‘Don’t shoot.’ Then the house fell, and both died,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone.

Hassan said neighbors pulled her out — and would eventually excavate 56 bodies from the rubble. She maintains that it wasn’t just one missile, but several, that fell on the homes of al-Jadida. “House upon house fell,” she said.

Airwars, an organization that tracks the air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, has cataloged between 1,308 and 2,435 claims of civilians killed by coalition airstrikes in Mosul in March alone, with between 156 and 355 of those killed being noncombatants. The most prominent of these is an alleged U.S. airstrike on March 17 that may have killed more than 200 people, which would be the highest civilian death toll from a single strike since the air war against the Islamic State began. But the real scope of the destruction and death wrought by coalition airstrikes remains unclear — and may be larger than the West yet understands.

The testimonies of Hassan and other neighbors about the March 17 airstrike in al-Jadida don’t always line up with the details of the incident frequently reported in Western media and are sometimes inconsistent with one another. There are regular disagreements on when airstrikes occurred, the extent of the bombardments, and whether Islamic State fighters were present at the scene of the attacks. But residents of al-Jadida agree on one basic point: that a series of airstrikes struck their town over several days — not one single strike, as official reports state — claiming hundreds of civilian lives.

Those testimonies are difficult to corroborate because it’s still dangerous to conduct any firsthand investigation. Though the frontline has since moved farther into the city, the neighborhood is not completely secure. Islamic State militants and Iraqi soldiers were still exchanging fire around the strike site when Foreign Policy visited, and unexploded ordnance lay under the twisted rebar and concrete.

Residents of the town, however, are still adamant that official reports are not telling the full truth about their ordeal.

“For 12 days, the [military ground] operations were not moving forward and the planes struck for 12 days on these homes,” said Bashar Abu Ammar, an al-Jadida resident sitting beside Hassan, referring to the street full of homes that had been destroyed.

Abu Ammar said the strikes occurred before and after the oft-cited strike on March 17.

He also claimed that the strikes became more intense, less accurate, and much more deadly when the Iraqi forces entered the neighborhood, and residents found themselves on the frontline.

“Before, it was good,” he said. “They used to strike precisely. That was before the army came. The army arrives in a neighborhood, stays for three or four days, and everyone around them suffers.”

The confusion about the number, and identities, of people killed in the strike, or series of strikes, in al-Jadida was only compounded when Iraqi military authorities banned journalists from entering western Mosul after news of the deaths became a scandal. Since March 23, when news began to emerge of massive civilian deaths due to airstrikes, foreign reporters have been halted at checkpoints outside the city’s west and prohibited from embedding with Iraqi forces on the frontlines, while only days earlier they had easily traveled with Iraqi forces.

And while the massive loss of civilian lives in al-Jadida has drawn international media attention, the issue of innocent deaths caused by airstrikes in the anti-Islamic State war may go far beyond one neighborhood.

Chris Woods, the director of Airwars, said there have been so many coalition airstrikes since the Islamic State’s takeover of large swathes of Iraq in 2014 that few have ever been appropriately inspected.

“Two-thirds of all incidents [of alleged civilian deaths] have not been assessed yet,” Woods said. “No matter how many resources the coalition puts into [investigating claims of civilian deaths], they don’t seem to be able to keep up.”

The United States and its 12 coalition allies have also paid very little money to the families of civilians killed in their air war against the Islamic State.

“Last I checked, the U.S. has not paid out any compensation,” Woods said. “When they do pay, in the form of solatia [condolence payments to civilian fatalities in military operations], it’s not an acceptance of guilt,” he said, referring to past payments the U.S. military has made to innocent victims of American force, like in Afghanistan. But even with such solatia payments, the United States admits no wrongdoing. “The U.S. would argue that all civilians whom they have killed were done so lawfully.”

However, Woods said that because of the international stir caused by the mass fatalities in the March airstrikes in al-Jadida, payments and admission of guilt by the U.S. military may be forthcoming. But the beneficiaries may have to be patient.

“My guess is that compensation will be paid out,” he said. “The problem is that many of those killed have families still in ISIS territory. It’s difficult to pay because ISIS can steal the money or victimize the family” who receives the payment.

U.S. Central Command’s Operation Inherent Resolve media office told Foreign Policy in an email that one solatia payment has been made in Iraq.

Solatia payments, the media office wrote, “are not intended to serve as compensation for the loss or injury” of civilians. The statement added that the coalition publishes a monthly press brief with civilian casualty assessments, which it says is an admission that the coalition is responsible for the unintentional civilian deaths.

However, “it is not admission of wrong-doing,” the email said.

Some human rights activists have raised concerns that changes in December to how the United States conducts airstrikes have increased the danger to civilians. At that time, a directive issued by Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of the anti-Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria, delegated responsibility for calling in airstrikes, as well as artillery, to American battlefield-level advisors close to the frontlines. This has removed the circuitous route of airstrike approval requests that go through a “strike cell” in Baghdad and made them easier to call in.

But Michael Knights, an Iraq military specialist at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, made the case that restrictive rules of engagement cost more lives than they have saved.

“In adopting these rules, Iraq and the coalition [have] ended up not liberating areas where ISIS kills military-age males,” Knights said. “Do you count those deaths? Are we really focused on saving lives here, or are we more focused on avoiding liability?”

Iraqi officers declined to address civilian casualties caused by airstrikes. Lt. Gen. Faris Hassan Al Zireg Falah said that he and his colleagues cannot comment until the results of a joint Iraqi-coalition investigation on the al-Jadida strikes are released.

But al-Jadida residents are not so reticent. They describe an air war that is increasingly leaving them with few options for survival.

“The army treated those escaping the neighborhood well,” said Rayed Najem Abdullah, a neighbor sitting with Hassan. “But you know what? The planes have destroyed us.”

BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

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