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With the huge rise in civilian casualties, the focus will quickly turn to restoring the locals’ trust in their government as the Iraqi army and US-led coalition forces drive Daesh from Mosul. By Lauren Williams.

Mosul after Daesh

A car bomb explodes as Iraqi forces clash with Daesh in Mosul this week.
Credit: ARIS MESSINIS / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

Khalil al-Layla was in his living room with his wife and two children, eight and 11, and his extended family. They were in the Daesh-controlled neighbourhood of Hay al-Dhubbat, in eastern Mosul, Iraq, waiting anxiously as fighting raged outside. It was February 10.

Al-Layla watched through his window as four black-clad Daesh fighters broke down the door of his uncle’s home. Minutes later four more Daesh militants – one armed with a rocket launcher – burst through his own front door. With his wife and children crying, al-Layla sent them downstairs to safety and begged the militants to allow the family to leave.

“I am talking to them, saying, ‘Please, we have … family here, there are children and women, let us go,’ ” he recalled from his new temporary home in Erbil, northern Iraq.

“They told me, ‘No, we are taking this house. We must kill the army. No one is to leave.’ ”

The fighters took up sniper positions on the roof of al-Layla’s home, in position against the Iraqi army.

Al-Layla had been living under Daesh occupation for more than two years. He is no fan of the group.

“They are very bad. There was no food, no money, no one can go out in the street. You can die any time. They kill people; they kill women, children; they kill everyone. This is not Islam.”

When the Iraqi armed forces, a United States-backed coalition of mostly Shiite militias and regular army, arrived to liberate the neighbourhood as part of the offensive to clear Mosul in October, he welcomed them.

Little did he expect his liberators would kill his family.

Moments after the Daesh fighters took up position on his rooftop in February, a rocket smashed into his uncle’s home, then another. All three occupants died. In the third strike, an entire side of his own home was wiped out. A fourth, hitting the house on the other side, killed his neighbour, Mohammed Shaaiati.

“We take four rockets. Two in my uncle house. My uncle dead. His wife is dead, and his daughter dead. One in my house destroyed half the house and the fourth in my neighbour garage.

“I think Iraqi army ordered it … but of course the rocket made in America … They were targeting the ISIS.

“I lost everything. My family, my memories, my house, everything.”

The four dead are among the thousands of documented civilian casualties to have been killed in friendly fire by US-led coalition forces fighting Daesh in Iraq and Syria. In the past month alone, 1200 civilians have been killed by coalition forces, according to Airwars, a non-profit monitoring network of citizen reporters and data journalists led by former BBC producer Chris Woods.

It’s an alarming and dramatic increase in numbers since President Donald Trump took over as commander-in-chief of the US forces. In the two years prior, Airwars had documented 2515 civilian casualties.

A month after al-Layla lost his family, a drone strike on a mosque in the town of Al-Jinnah, in the west of northern Syria’s Aleppo province, killed upwards of 42 people. According to Ammar al-Salmo, one of the first at the scene and a leader of the volunteer civil defence organisation White Helmets, the drone fired twice, hitting the toilet block of the mosque complex, packed for evening prayer at 7pm, and then again outside, as the devout fled.

“We arrived at the scene and found bodies in the space, especially on the road near the mosque…” al-Salmo said. “There were more than 30 on the road, some were killed, some were injured and still bleeding. We collected the bodies and tried to ambulance the injured, then we entered the building of the mosque that had been attacked.

“We searched the rubble for more. After two hours we were able to dig out two civilians still alive and another one killed.”

The Pentagon did not deny the strike occurred, but in a statement US Central Command told The Saturday Paper the mosque was not struck. Instead, they said, an al-Qaeda gathering in a nearby building had been the target.

“We did not target, nor did we strike a mosque,” Major Josh T. Jacques said in an email. “We targeted an al-Qaeda gathering across the street from the mosque. The mosque does not appear to be damaged following the strike. We are aware of the reports of civilian casualties and we are looking into it.”

Al-Salmo is in no doubt as to who was responsible, and said all who died were civilians.

“US air forces conducted it,” he said. “They say this was an al-Qaeda headquarters, and as usual the Pentagon says they will look into any allegation of civilian casualties. As usual. There is no ISIS in Jinnah. There is no military headquarters, no Nusra, or any factions.”

A week later – the reports are shaky, given the difficulty of communications in Daesh-held al-Raqqa – a US drone strike on a school housing displaced civilians killed another 50 people. The Pentagon says it is investigating.

But it was an incident involving mass casualties in the Jadida district in Mosul on March 17 that has really raised questions. Up to 200 civilians were killed in a suspected US air raid on the densely populated neighbourhood, where narrow streets provide cover for Daesh militants. With many still trapped under the rubble and debris from the extreme destruction of the assault, the exact number of dead is still not known. The Pentagon has all but owned up to the attack, but also pointed to the fact that Daesh is commonly using human shields in Mosul.

Defence Minister Marise Payne last week said Australian combat aircraft were not involved in the Jadida attack, but did not rule out the possibility the Royal Australian Air Force may have had a supporting role. The Pentagon is holding an inquiry to determine what occurred.

As part of the inquiry, in testimony given to the US committee on armed services on March 29, General Joseph Votel of US Central Command insisted: “We have not relaxed the rules of engagement.”

But clearly something has changed.

As Chris Woods of Airwars says: “What we have seen in recent weeks is these very, very intense air strikes coupled with artillery strikes, rocket strikes, mortar attacks, in densely attacked areas of west Mosul. The destruction in some places is utterly complete.

“We do accept that in general the coalition has taken significant care to limit harm to civilians, but really that has been changing … and we are seeing more and more credible reports of civilian casualties.

“The more challenging part here is to try and understand whether this is simply part of the phase that the war is now in … We are probably in the final quarter of the war now and that’s when the highest civilian casualties were always expected. But perhaps also there is something else here ... and new policies demanded by President Trump, for example, who has ordered the US military to strip away some of the protections to civilians on the battlefield, except the minimum required by international law.”

Rodger Shanahan, a Lowy Institute fellow and former military officer who has conducted several operational inquiries into civilian casualties, is cautious about the claims of a rise in numbers and wary of non-military sources.

There is, he said, a “shedload” of disinformation from advocacy groups that ultimately serve Daesh’s propaganda objectives.

“You have to be very careful accepting there is an increase in casualties to the degree that is being claimed … and who you include in the death toll, because they might be combatants,” Shanahan said.

Under humanitarian laws regarding the rules of engagement, combatants must take all reasonable steps to minimise civilian casualties and the use of force has to be proportionate to the military gains. But while you can’t deliberately target civilians, killing them does not contravene the law.

Bad as dead civilians might be, and whatever the truth in the reported rise in numbers, the long-term strategic consequences are less ambiguous. Of crucial concern for the postwar phase is for the Iraqi government to win the trust of the population and restore governance. Only this will prevent the re-emergence of anti-Western Islamic militant groups. Failure to do so may result in a repeat of 2007 and 2012, when the emergence of a weak and sectarian government under Nouri al-Maliki saw civilians turn against their “liberators”, allowing the emergence of al-Qaeda in Iraq – and later Daesh – and precipitating the crisis in which the country and the international community now finds itself.

The postwar phase, as Shanahan put it, will be a “battle of narratives”.

“Trying to repair and restore the areas that were massively damaged, you need to portray the government as caring and attentive,” he said.

Daesh will no doubt capitalise on claims of coalition civilian casualties.

“The [Daesh] narrative is that of the oppressed versus the oppressors… That people who don’t worry about the oppressed come here with their heavy weapons and lay siege to Muslims… That we are the only ones that can protect you,” Shanahan says.

“That is how they will try to frame the Iraqi government and that will get traction if the central government allows it to through poor governance post-conflict.”

Chris Woods believes that, for the time being, Mosul residents are just traumatised. “Later,” he said, “it might turn into something else.”

For Khalil al-Layla, the loss of his family is simply a reality of war.

“When Iraqi army come, of course I am happy. But what they are doing in the future I don’t know. I don’t trust them now. ISIS destroyed my country. Now we lost ISIS … I lost everything,” he said.

“This is war. They must kill ISIS. How many civilians [they] kill, it’s okay for Americans. For the Iraqi army, it’s okay. As long as I kill ISIS. The civilians … they don’t care.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 8, 2017 as "From the rubble". Subscribe here.

Lauren Williams
is a freelance journalist.