WASHINGTON – Just a few months after the U.S. declared ISIS in Iraq “defeated,” a new study has concluded that the U.S.-led battle to remove Daesh (ISIS) from Mosul, once Iraq’s second-largest city, ultimately killed nearly 12 times the number of civilians than were killed by the infamous terror group.
The study, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, surveyed 1,200 households in Mosul for cases of civilian deaths by intentional violence since Daesh first occupied the city in 2014. The leading causes of reported deaths were found to have been direct results of the U.S.-led coalition battle to remove Daesh, with airstrikes accounting for around 40 percent of all reported civilian deaths and explosions accounting for another 34 percent.
Together, deaths attributable the coalition accounted for 373 of the 505 total deaths reported. In contrast, the study found that only 22 civilian deaths, accounting for those killed by beheadings and gunshot wounds, were attributable to Daesh.
While only around 500 civilian deaths were reported by the households surveyed, the study’s authors noted that these figures are likely an underestimate — citing a high probability of survivor bias, the concentration of air strikes in the western part of the city, and the fact that many Mosul civilians had fled the city prior to the survey.
Beyond the imbalance in civilian death tolls caused by the U.S. coalition and Daesh, Gilbert Burnham of Johns Hopkins University, the study’s lead author, pointed out that another key conclusion was the inaccuracy of the coalition airstrikes, which had long been advertised domestically as highly precise, and the coalition’s extensive use of “scorched earth” warfare.
Burnham told The Telegraph:
The high-velocity, high-explosive weapons have a huge range and using these weapons in tightly packed urban areas is a major risk. You might be targeting snipers or a group of [Daesh] fighters but if they’re closely surrounded by large numbers of civilians you can expect substantial casualties.”
There’s always collateral damage and that’s recognized in the Geneva Convention and in warfare. But the more powerful the weapons become, the larger the area of potential collateral damage. That raises a whole question of proportionality.”
Indeed, much of Mosul still remains reduced to rubble, with an unknown number of bodies still hidden under collapsed buildings and debris. Just last month, the bodies of 22 children were pulled from a pile of rubble in the western part of the city, the area most heavily targeted by coalition strikes.
Though the findings of this study are troubling, it is hardly the first to examine the deaths of civilians during the U.S.-led operation to “liberate” the city of Mosul. A previous report, published by the United Nations in November of last year, found that the coalition was responsible for the deaths of one in four civilians, with an estimated 2,521 civilians killed and 1,673 wounded during the military operation.
While it found the U.S.-led coalition to be responsible for fewer deaths than this more recent study, the UN report raised similar concerns about the coalition’s use of “imprecise, explosive weapons, killing thousands of civilians,” further suggesting that the coalition’s bombing tactics “may constitute [a] war crime.” Such concerns about war crimes have also been raised by human-rights groups, such as Amnesty International, which has criticized the coalition’s use of unnecessary force and practice of indiscriminately targeting civilians.
Despite concern over the coalition’s bombing tactics and the resulting civilian casualties, the Pentagon has long been dismissive of such concerns, shifting from denial to defiance over the high death toll. For instance, in responding to criticism over a single strike that killed hundreds of civilians in Mosul, the Pentagon cited video footage of Daesh forcing hundreds of civilians into the buildings the U.S. later bombed as “provoking the attack” — essentially admitting that the U.S. knew those buildings were full of civilians but chose to bomb the location anyway.
Aside from likely U.S. complicity in war crimes that led to the deaths of scores of civilians in Mosul, the U.S.-led coalition has also admitted to using white phosphorus, a chemical weapon, during the battle for Mosul. In June of last year, U.S.-led coalition member New Zealand’s Brig. Gen. Hugh McAslan told NPR that “we have utilized white phosphorous to screen areas within West Mosul to get civilians out safely.”
Though the chemical weapon is authorized for use to illuminate targets and create smokescreens, its use is not authorized to do so near civilian populations, particularly dense urban centers like Mosul. Furthermore, video footage showing white phosphorus bombs in the center of the Mosul suggest that the chemical was not being used a “smokescreen” to help shield escaping civilians from view but was rather part of the coalition’s bombing strategy.
US led coalition dropping white phosphorus bombs on Western Mosul last week. pic.twitter.com/qdXkL2n5Gv
— CJ Werleman (@cjwerleman) June 5, 2017
In addition, despite all the carnage the U.S. coalition brought on Mosul in its bid to drive out Daesh, Daesh militants are still present in the city, suggesting that the “defeat” of Daesh in Mosul was not quite what it was made out to be. On Sunday, three Daesh militants were caught in Mosul, followed by two more who were arrested yesterday.
While Mosul is certainly better off under the control of the Iraqi government as opposed to foreign-funded terrorist groups, this latest study adds more evidence to the charge that the U.S.-led coalition’s actions in Mosul were hardly grounded in the humanitarian concern that the U.S. government so frequently invokes when justifying the use of its military abroad.
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