An investigation by the Associated Press (AP) found that between 9,000 and 11,000 Iraqi civilians died in the nine-month battle by US, Iraqi and coalition forces to recapture the city of Mosul from Islamic State (IS) militants.
The AP investigation concluded the city’s civilian death toll is 10 times higher than previously reported and at least 27 times higher than the figure acknowledged by US military officials, who acknowledge responsibility for 326 deaths in Mosul.
A decade ago, more than 1.8 million people called Mosul home. Now the city is commonly referred to as as “graveyard” because so many people died there, many of their bodies yet to be recovered. While US officials have shown little interest in determining the actual number of civilians killed during the battle for Mosul, human rights and journalistic monitors as well as the city’s gravediggers and undertakers have been keeping count, and what they’ve found is alarming.
Iraqi army bombs, bullets and artillery, backed by US and coalition aerial bombardment, killed at least 3,200 civilian men, women and children between October 2016 and the fall of IS in Mosul in July 2017, according to the AP investigation. The majority of victims were described as “crushed” in official Health Ministry reports.
A similar number of Mosul civilians were killed by IS fighters, who often hid among civilians or used innocent people as human shields, leading to more of them being killed by coalition forces. IS militants also killed civilians who attempted to flee its dwindling area of control.
Around a third of the civilian deaths in Mosul could not be definitively attributed to either coalition or IS forces. Many civilians died cowering in homes or other buildings under constant attack from both sides.
Civilian deaths surged as Iraqi and coalition forces accelerated their assault on Mosul, and especially during the final months and weeks of the battle for the largest city held by IS. When the coalition offensive stalled last December due to fierce IS resistance, Pentagon officials loosened rules of engagement meant to protect civilians, allowing air strikes to be ordered by ground commanders with less oversight from higher-ranking officers.
At the same time, Iraqi officials urged civilians to remain in their homes even as they were bombed from the air and attacked from the streets by both sides. Many were captured and used as human shields by IS fighters as their situation grew increasingly desperate. Countless innocent men, women and children lived and died facing the impossible choice of waiting for bombs or starvation to kill them in their homes or braving bombs, bullets and artillery strikes while attempting to flee an embattled city full of snipers, mines, booby traps and other deadly perils.
Horrific slaughter defined much of the battle for Mosul. Local morgue logs were increasingly filled with reports of civilians being “blown to pieces.” Streets still reek of rotting bodies.
“Sometimes you can see the bodies,” Imad Ibrahim, a civil defense rescue worker now given the grisly task of digging up the dead, told the AP. “They’re visible under the rubble. Other times we dig for hours, and suddenly find 15 to 30 all in one place. That’s when you know they were sheltering, hiding from the airstrikes.”
Official undertaker Abdel-Hafiz Mohammed told the AP he’s carved over 2,000 headstones for graves in the city’s al-Jadida cemetery.
“I carve stones for entire families,” he said. “It’s a single family, all killed in an airstrike.”
The al-Jadida neighborhood was the site of one of the deadliest air strikes in modern US warfare. On March 17, 2017 more than 140 people sheltering in a residential building were killed when a US warplane dropped a 500 pound bomb on them while targeting IS snipers. The Pentagon claimed responsibility for 105 of the deaths but deemed the bombing “appropriately balanced” and said the building collapsed due to explosives planted there by IS fighters. Witnesses and survivors said there were no IS explosives placed in the home.
US officials often deny, dismiss or deflect blame for civilian casualties, which number in the hundreds of thousands after 16 years of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya and Syria. Many credible reports of civilian deaths are never investigated, and when investigations are conducted they often rely upon remote drone footage or pilot observations. The US, which has the ability to deploy Special Forces troops to 70 percent of the world’s countries and to wage war in half a dozen nations simultaneously, claims it does not possess the resources to send a team to Mosul to thoroughly investigate civilian casualty claims. Meanwhile, a single AP reporter visited Mosul’s morgue six times in as many weeks and spoke to morgue officials and employees dozens of times, both in person and over the phone.
US officials defended coalition conduct when pressed on the issue of civilian deaths.
“It is simply irresponsible to focus criticism on inadvertent casualties caused by the coalition’s war to defeat ISIS,” coalition spokesperson Col. Thomas Veale told the AP. “Without the coalition’s air and ground campaign against ISIS, there would have inevitably been additional years, if not decades of suffering and needless death and mutilation in Syria and Iraq at the hands of terrorists who lack any ethical or moral standards.”
Pentagon officials insist great care is taken to avoid harming innocent people. Military spokespeople have often described the air war against IS as the “most precise air campaign in history.”
Despite these claims, civilian deaths have soared since Trump — who campaigned promising to “bomb the shit out of” IS and “take out their families” — took office. At the height of the anti-IS campaign earlier this year, local media and human rights monitor groups published daily casualty reports in which entire Iraqi and Syrian families were often listed as victims of US-led air strikes. The UK-based journalistic monitor group Airwars estimates at least 5,975 civilians have been killed in more than 28,000 US-led air strikes in Iraq and Syria since August 2014. The Pentagon officially acknowledges just 800 of these deaths.
Estimates of the total number of people killed in the ongoing US-led war against terrorism range from the hundreds of thousands to over 1.3 million. Since the nuclear bombings of Japan at the end of World War II, the US has killed more foreign civilians than any other armed force in the world, by far.