In a report published on Tuesday, Amnesty International accused Iraqi government forces and the U.S.-led coalition of “relentless and unlawful attacks” against civilians in the battle to recapture Mosul from the Islamic State. Amnesty declared the battle a “civilian catastrophe.”
Allied commanders strongly rejected these accusations, with one senior British commander condemning the report as “deeply irresponsible” and “disrespectful.”
“The scale and gravity of the loss of civilian lives during the military operation to retake Mosul must immediately be publicly acknowledged at the highest levels of government in Iraq and states that are part of the US-led coalition,” demanded Amnesty International Director of Research for the Middle East Lynn Maalouf.
According to the report, at least 3,706 civilians were killed in attacks launched by Iraqi or coalition forces. Amnesty International attributes some of these deaths to the Islamic State’s habit of using human shields but accuses the Iraqis of using “inherently indiscriminate” rocket weapons and fewer well-trained troops in its campaign to recapture western Mosul. AI claims to have investigated 45 attacks launched by the Iraqi government and its allied forces and counted at least 426 civilian deaths.
The report also accuses the Iraqis of failing to take effective precautions to avoid civilian casualties, arguing that some of the instructions provided to Mosul residents were unrealistic.
“They did air-drop leaflets into IS-controlled areas of the city, instructing civilians to stay away from IS or to hang children’s clothes on the roof to mark civilian homes,” Amnesty International concedes. “These warnings, however, took little account of the realities of living under IS. Staying away from IS was impossible for west Mosul residents and fighters would execute anyone caught with a flyer in their hands. Houses with children’s clothes on the roof were still hit by airstrikes.”
AI claims that only one significant effort was made to change tactics in western Mosul, a March 17 halt to coalition airstrikes followed by a lightening of bomb payloads.
The report does acknowledge the monstrous evil of ISIS, noting that it wantonly committed war crimes ranging from the use of human shields, booby-trapping of residences, and wanton slaughter of fleeing civilians to the denial of food and medical services to Mosul’s captive population.
“ISIS summarily killed hundreds, if not thousands, of men, women, and children as they attempted to flee and hanged their bodies in public areas,” AI notes.
Coalition commanders blasted the Amnesty International report as unfair, unreasonable, and inclined to blame the Iraqis and allied forces for war crimes that were actually perpetrated by the Islamic State, as in the deaths of human shields.
“I think it’s an unfair accusation. They have not coordinated with the coalition,” said U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Andrew Croft when NPR asked about the AI report.
“I’ll tell you that from the way we do our airstrikes, we use the most precise and discriminate weapons that we can ever use and are available in the world to avoid targeting civilians,” he continued. “We have direct control and conversations with the Iraqis minute by minute on exactly what’s happening on the ground. And we have an unprecedented number of unmanned vehicles over the top of the fight to see exactly what’s happening. And I’ll tell you, if there’s ever a doubt of whether or not there’s a civilian involved, we will not strike.”
In addition to insisting that the coalition did “the absolute best job we can to avoid any civilian casualties,” Croft rejected Amnesty International’s charge that not enough was done to provide trapped civilians with safe passage out of Mosul.
“Let me tell you what it looks like on the ground,” he said to NPR host Rachel Martin. “The Iraqi security forces actually do what you just said. So as they move into areas, they will clear streets to allow civilians to attempt to escape towards friendly lines and try and bring those civilians out. What ISIS has done is it held civilians against their will, obviously. And they target the civilians as the civilians try to escape. So we’ve seen 50 or 100 civilians at a time gunned down in the street by ISIS as they try and escape to friendly lines.”
British Major General Rupert Jones, deputy commander of the coalition against ISIS, was even blunter in his rejection of the Amnesty International report, calling it “deeply irresponsible and frankly naive.”
“It is riddled with assertion. At no stage did they have the courtesy to engage the coalition to ask what our targeting process is,” he said. “It strikes me as being written by people who simply have no understanding of the brutality of warfare.”
Jones said it is “beyond question” that Iraqi security forces “put the safety of civilians as the absolute centerpiece of the liberation of the city over the last nine months.” He added that protocol violations presented to the Iraqi government were “taken very, very seriously.”
“I would say it is the most sophisticated targeting and strike process in history,” he declared, saying Iraqi forces deserved congratulations from the entire world for winning “probably the most significant urban battle since the Second World War.”
U.S. Army Lt. General Stephen Townsend, the top commander of the anti-ISIS coalition, rejected “any notion that coalition fires were in any way imprecise, unlawful, or excessively targeted civilians.”
“I would challenge the people from Amnesty International, or anyone else out there who makes these charges, to first research their facts and make sure they’re speaking from a position of authority,” said Townsend.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was also strongly critical of the report. “Human rights organizations should recheck their sources, and should come and see how jubilant are civilians as they welcome Iraqi troops,” he said at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
“What was the role of those organizations when Daesh killed the sons of Mosul and destroyed everything there?” Abadi added, using another name for the Islamic State.