Iraqi and U.S. forces celebrated the liberation of Mosul from ISIS Sunday following nearly nine months of pitched urban battle and guerrilla warfare. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hailed “total victory” in Mosul’s Old City as he waved Iraq’s national flag before a crowd of Iraqi soldiers. U.S. President Donald Trump said it was a “victory over terrorists who are the enemies of all civilized people.”
But on Monday, a quieter, far more devastating picture emerged from the rubble. According to a report released by Amnesty International, west Mosul, the close-quartered half of the city where ISIS made its last stand, suffered a “civilian catastrophe” of “horrifying” proportions — a catastrophe for which all sides bear some responsibility.
The report details the grim reality that hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in Mosul faced every day while under ISIS occupation and during the battle to free the city, launched in October: women and children used as human shields, whole families slaughtered by ISIS snipers, hundreds killed in the heavy bombardment from Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.
“Civilians have been ruthlessly exploited by the armed group calling itself the Islamic State (IS), which has systematically moved them into zones of conflict, used them as human shields, and prevented them from escaping to safety,” the report states. “They have also been subjected to relentless and unlawful attacks by Iraqi government forces and members of the U.S.-led coalition.”
“Hundreds if not thousands” of Iraqis attempting to escape the siege were reportedly killed by ISIS, their bodies then hung in public areas. Meanwhile, ground attacks and airstrikes launched by Iraqi and coalition forces caused the deaths of at least 3,706 civilians between February and June of this year, the report states, citing data collected by the independent monitoring group Airwars. An additional 4,000 bodies remain under the rubble, Airwars estimates.
“The true death toll of the west Mosul battle may never be known,” Amnesty’s report says.
The coalition’s costly offensive
As much as defeat over ISIS in Mosul was “no doubt, a necessity,” the airstrikes and engagements on the part of the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi forces resulted in thousands of reports of alleged civilian casualties, said Christopher Woods, the director of Airwars.
“The thing that really troubles us here is that the number of munitions being fired into Mosul by the coalition has stayed reasonably constant, but the area under assault has contracted more and more,” said Woods. “So as the noose tightened around ISIS in West Mosul, a smaller and smaller area was being bombarded with a similar number of munitions.”
Such an approach, Woods says, raised the question of whether precision-guided munitions, long justified as the more cautious choice for avoiding civilian casualties, were the most appropriate for the coalition’s operation in such a densely packed territory.
The deadliest attack by Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces came in March, when a 500-pound bomb aimed at two ISIS snipers killed at least 105 civilians. Iraqi military leaders halted their offensive in west Mosul briefly following international outcry.
The U.S. Central Command, which estimated Friday that 603 civilians had been killed in its campaigns in both Iraq and Syria (a number that diverges enormously with Airwars and other independent monitors estimates) told VICE News it takes “extraordinary efforts to protect non-combatants.” But Woods argues it’s often all but impossible to know who’s who in the sort of battles taking place in such densely packed cities.
“The coalition could not have known and the Iraqi forces could not have known in most cases whether civilians were present or not, and this is a big problem because the laws of war require both distinction and proportionality,” said Woods.
Beyond the vast number of civilian casualties, the intensity of the fighting destroyed essential health infrastructure and exacerbated humanitarian issues, said Vittorio Oppizzi, head of Médecins Sans Frontières’ mission in Iraq. Many of the civilians who made it out alive were wounded, suffering from malnutrition, and experiencing psychological trauma.
“Health infrastructure has been severely damaged or destroyed, and therefore this generates longer-term needs in terms of access to health care,” said Oppizzi. “Given what the population has witnessed, there’s an immense need of mental health [care].”
MSF set up a medical facility in the western part of Mosul two and a half weeks ago and has received about 220 patients thus far. More than 50 of those patients are women and children. Oppizzi said they received fewer patients than expected, which was frightening because it meant many Iraqis did not make it out alive.
“This number is comparatively low to what was expected to be the population trapped behind the front lines, so our biggest fear is that many people didn’t manage to escape,” Oppizzi said. “Some of the stories our patients have told us are horrific.”
The battle for the last ISIS stronghold in Mosul lasted longer than expected. And even after the declaration of victory and subsequent celebrations, the utter destruction left behind means many of Mosul’s civilians won’t be able to return home anytime soon.
“Lack of water, health services, and electricity are currently preventing people from choosing to return home,” said Oxfam America senior humanitarian policy adviser Noah Gottschalk. “[It’s] causing further displacement.”