US-led Coalition in Iraq & Syria

Civilians in the ruins of Mosul city. (Maranie R. Staab)

Belligerent
US-led Coalition
Country
Iraq
start date
end date
Civilian Harm Status
Belligerent Assessment
Declassified Documents
Infrastructure

Incident Code

CI760

Incident date

June 13, 2017

Location

الشفاء, الموصل‎, Al Shafaa, Mosul, Nineveh, Iraq

Geolocation

36.351678, 43.118042 Note: The accuracy of this location is to Exact location (via Airwars) level. Continue to map

Airwars assessment

A total of 35 people people from an extended family were killed, including 14 children, 9 women and two imams, when a home and street were bombed in the Al Shifa neighbourhood of Mosul. Sources said that the family were sheltering in the basement of the house.

Initial claims had placed the toll at 50, while the US-led Coalition estimated that 11 civilians were killed in the attack. Australia later explicitly accepted responsibility for part of the event – conceding between 6 and 18 deaths. Fifteen months later in May 2020, the United States accepted responsibility for a further 11 deaths in the event.

Relatives informed Airwars and others that in fact 35 named people died, from eight closely related families. There was only one survivor.

The Australian Defence Force (ADF’s) investigation was based on estimates of population density, not any on-the-ground research, and no contact was made with the affected family. However within hours of the official announcement of civilian harm, a surviving member of the family told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that the number of civilians killed was 35, including his brother, sister and other family members.

“My brother has lost all of his family. The number of the family members who died are 35,” said Sheikh Ayman el Saffar. Sheikh Ayman said his brother’s property was also used as a religious community centre.

“The house was hit, they lost money and a religious community centre. He had this religious community centre at that time he used it as his private house. There were no activities at the community centre at the time.”

The New York Times interviewed Kareema Khalid Suleiman, the only survivor, who told the reporter that the family had gathered for safety in a house in the Al Shifaa neighborhood but when the home was hit, 33 people were killed. “As the house was consumed in flames, she managed to crawl out of a tiny hole, but no one else could make it. Behind her, a younger relative had managed to make it partly up the staircase. “My last words to her were: ‘Please, I’m going to help you. Come to me.’ And when they pulled me out, she was closing her eyes, and she died.”

According to the international alliance, there were strikes by two separate Coalition allies in the near vicinity on the day – each of which killed civilians. Australia accepted responsibility on January 31st 2019 for between 6 and 18 deaths in one of the strikes during the incident, while on the same day the Coalition’s civilian casualty assessment team declared a minimum of 11 deaths. This was later revealed to have been a separate US action. The Coalition provided Airwars with the location of this incident, accurate to within a 100 metre box.

Ateka Facebook page said on the day of the incident that Sheikh Mohammed Ghanim Al-Saffar – who was an Imam and preacher at the Sheikh Fathi Mosque in Mosul – died after aircraft targeted a sniper standing on the roof and bombed his house. The page said that his body was still under the rubble, together with his family.

Other outlets, including Yaqein and MNN, reported that 50 people in total were under the rubble of the house and presumed dead.

However Sawefa Ateka later reported that some were rescued: “The martyrdom of Madh Muhammad al-Saffar and the rescue of the family of Sheikh Ahmad al-Saffar and the other families who were exposed to their house in Al Shifa neighbourhood for aerial bombing Thank you to the rescue teams and the security forces there.”

Another entry listed the following victims: “The family of Mullah Youssef mourns the family of Al-Saffar by the martyr Sheikh Mohammed Ghanim Al-Saffar in front of the preacher of the Sheikh Fathi Mosque and his family and Sheikh Ahmed Ghanim Al-Saffar Imam and preacher of the Sheikh Muhsin Mosque and his family; and their brother Ammar Ghanem Al-Saffar and his family; and their cousin and their relative Raed Abdul Salam Al-Saffar and many people, after the fall of a missile from the plane on their house, which led to the fall of the house on them I am God and I return to him.”

Sheikh Mohammed Ghanim Al-Saffar was described by Qoraish as “one of ISIS’s most formidable enemies”.

@sonawa1 tweeted that civilians were “trapped under the rubble of the house of Abdul Ghani Halawaji”. It is likely that Abdul Ghani Halawaji is a misspell – with Halawaji possibly referring to the village the family originally came from – rather than the Mosul neighbourhoood from which they now take their name.

Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, spoke about the event following the ADF’s concession: “It is not clear what precisely went on. But I know our Defence force people will always be doing everything they can to ensure casualties are avoided.” The PM also described the event as “a terrible incident”, with the deaths of civilians “difficult and tragic.”

Airwars conducted an extensive interview with Engineer Amjad al Saffar, a family elder, in February 2019, in which the names of all victims were handed over.

In May 2020 in its annual civilian harm report to Congress, the Pentagon confirmed that US forces had been responsible for at least 11 deaths in this event. Asked to comment from Mosul on the Pentagon’s recent admission that its aircraft too had played a role in the mass casualty event, Engineer Amjad told Airwars: “As a well known and respected Mosul family, we feel both very sad and disappointed to learn of the US’s confession – three years after our catastrophe.- of their own role in an airstrike which killed so many. Along with Australia we hold the US fully responsible for our heavy loss of 35 family members, and demand both an apology and financial compensation.”

The incident occured at 10:00:00 local time.

The victims were named as:

Family members (5)

Ammar Ghanim Ali Mohamed Al Saffar
61 years old male Brother of Sheikh Mohammed killed
Ahlam Ali Jasim Al Tai
56 years old female Wife of Ammar killed
Shahad Ammar Ghanim Ali Mohamed Al Saffar
13 years old female killed
Sara Ammar Ghanim Ali Mohamed Al Saffar
10 years old female killed
Ghanim Ammar Ghanim Ali Mohamed Alsaffar
16 years old male killed

Family members (8)

Mohamed Ghanim Ali Mohamed Al Saffar
48 years old male killed
Muna Esma t Abdulrahman Al Bakua
43 years old female killed
Madeh Mohamed Ghanim Ali Al Saffar
21 years old male killed
Mawdda Mohamed Ghanin Ali Mohamed Al Saffar
19 years old female killed
Safiah Mohmed Ghanim Ali Mohmed Al Saffar
16 years old female killed
Malak Mohamed Ghanim Ali Mohmed Al Saffar
13 years old female killed
Maram Mohmed Ghanim Ali Mohamed Al Saffar
10 years old female killed
Rehana Mohamed Ghanim Ali Mohmed Al Saffar
5 years old female killed

Family members (6)

Ahmed Ghanim Ali Mohmed Al Saffar
47 years old male killed
Amna Sabah Hussen Ali Mohmed Al Saffar
33 years old female killed
Teba Ahmed Ghanim Ali Mohmed Al Saffar
16 years old female killed
Rehma Ahmed Ghanim Ali Mohmed Al Saffar
14 years old female killed
Ameer Ahmed Ghanim Ali Mohmed Al Saffar
9 years old male killed
Reem Ahmed Ghanim Ali Mohmed Al Saffar
4 years old female killed

Family members (6)

Raed Abdelsalam Ali Mohmed Al Saffar
55 years old male killed
Asma Ghanim Ali Mohmed Al Saffar
52 years old female killed
Wisam Raed Abdelsalam Ali Mohamed Al Saffar
25 years old male killed
Mustafa Raed Abdelsalam Ali Mohmed Al Saffar
22 years old male killed
Bilal Raed Abdelsam Ali Mohaned Al Saffar
19 years old male killed
Fatima Raed Abdelsalam Ali Mohmed Al Saffar
15 years old female killed

Family members (2)

Nadia Ghanim Ali Mohamed Al Saffar
57 years old female killed
Mumen Oqba Mohmed
25 years old male killed

Family members (2)

Ayser Abdelhameed Ali Mohamed Al Saffar
45 years old male killed
Awrad Ayser Abdelhameed Ali Mohmed Al Saffar
13 years old female killed

Family members (4)

Arzak Andelhameed Ali Mohamed Al Saffar
54 years old female killed
Zahra Khalid Selman Mohamed Taha
21 years old female killed
Sura Khalid Selman Mohamed Taha
19 years old female killed
Ali Khalid Selman Mohamed Taha
18 years old male killed

Family members (2)

Salheh Hani Hassan Ali Mohamed Al Saffar
32 years old male killed
Maram Saleh Hani Hassan Ali Al Saffar
1.5 years old female killed

Geolocation notes (4) [ collapse]

Reports of the incident mention a residential building being struck in the Al Shifa neighbourhood (حي الشفاء) of western Mosul (الموصل‎). Analyzing visual material from Nineveh Media Centre, who provided a screenshot of the location, we were able to verify geolocate both Ibn Al Atheer Station (محطة ابن الاثير), and the house of Sheikh Ahmad Saffar (بيت الشيخ احمد الصفار). The exact coordinates for the house of Sheikh Ahmad Saffar are: 36.351678, 43.118042. Although Coalition has supplied Airwars with their coordinates (MGRS: 38SLF313241) for the strike, evidence supplied by local sources shows these to be innaccurate by atleast 531m.

  • Reports of the incident mention a residential building being struck in the Al Shifa neighbourhood (حي الشفاء) of western Mosul (الموصل‎). Analyzing visual material from Nineveh Media Centre, who provided a screenshot of the location, we were able to verify geolocate both Ibn Al Atheer Station (محطة ابن الاثير), and the house of Sheikh Ahmad Saffar (بيت الشيخ احمد الصفار).

    Imagery:
    Google Earth

  • Comparison of satellite imagery available on Google Earth. Right shows evidence of a residential building being struck in the vicinty of the petrol station mentioned by Nineveh Media Centre.

    Imagery:
    Google Earth

  • Imagery uploaded by Nineveh Media Centre intended to direct aid towards the residential building shows the location of the strike and landmarks in the vicinity.

    Imagery:
    Nineveh Media Centre

  • Although Coalition has supplied Airwars with their coordinates (MGRS: 38SLF313241) for the strike, evidence supplied by local sources shows these to be innaccurate by atleast 531m.

    Imagery:
    Google Earth

Summary

  • Strike status
    Declared strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    35
  • (14 children9 women12 men)
  • Civilians reported injured
    1
  • Cause of injury / death
    Heavy weapons and explosive munitions
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Confirmed
    A specific belligerent has accepted responsibility for civilian harm.
  • Known attacker
    US-led Coalition
  • Suspected attacker
    Unknown
  • Known target
    ISIS

Sources (27) [ collapse]

Media
from sources (18) [ collapse]

  • Sheikhs Mohamed and Ahmed Ghanim Al Saffar were popular local preachers – and a thorn in the side of their ISIS occupiers (Picture courtesy of the Al Saffar family. All rights reserved.)
  • Sheikh Mohammed Ghanem Al-Saffar and Sheikh Ahmed Ghanim Al-Saffar (via Mosul Ateka)
  • Nineveh Media Centre posted an image of the bombing location, in an effort to direct rescue services with the following message: 'Urgent Appeal 50 people in the house Al-Sheikh Ahmad Al-Saffar Al-Shifa neighbourhood was shelled today and the families in the house appeal to all the factions to rescue them. The nearest force to them is the Federal Police Force.'
  • Ammar Ghanim Ali Mohamed Al Saffar (Image courtesy of the Al Saffar family. All rights reserved)
  • Raed Abdelsalam Ali Mohmed Al Saffar (Image courtesy of the Al Saffar family.)
  • Ghanim Ammar Ghanim Ali Mohamed Al Saffar (Image courtesy of Al Saffar family)
  • Madeh Mohamed Ghanim Ali Al Saffar (Image courtesy of Al Saffar family)
  • Bilal Raed Abdelsam Ali Mohaned Al Saffar (Image courtesy of Al Saffar family)
  • Ameer Ahmed Ghanim Ali Mohmed Al Saffar, aged nine, had spent a third of his life under ISIS occupation when he died. He was one of 14 children killed on June 13th 2017 (Picture courtesy of the Al Saffar family. All rights reserved.)
  • Wisam and Mustafa Raed Abdelsalam Ali Mohamed Al Saffar (Image courtesy of the family)
  • Mumen Oqba Mohmed (Image courtesy of Al Saffar family)
  • Photo montage of some of the 35 victims of June 13th 2017 strikes by Australian and US aircraft, courtesy of the Al Saffar family.
  • Ruins of a family home in which 35 civilians died at Mosul on June 13th 2017 - in what is now known to have been US and Australian airstrikes (Image courtesy of the Al Saffar family. All rights reserved.)
  • Ruins of a family home in which 35 civilians died in Coalition strikes on June 13th 2017 (Image courtesy of the Al Saffar family. All rights reserved.)
  • Ruins of a family home in which 35 civilians died in Coalition strikes on June 13th 2017 (Image courtesy of the Al Saffar family. All rights reserved.)
  • The hole from which survivor Kareema escaped between strikes on a Mosul family home (Image courtesy of the Al Saffar family.)
  • Table from May 2020 Pentagon report to Congress, conceding additional US civilian harm events in Iraq and Syria during 2017.
  • Kareema Khalid Suleiman, the sole survivor of a Coalition strike on Mosul June 13, 2017. (Image from New York Times)

US-led Coalition Assessment:

  • Known belligerent
    US-led Coalition
  • US-led Coalition position on incident
    Credible / Substantiated
    The investigation assessed that although all feasible precautions were taken and the decision to strike complied with the law of armed conflict, unintended civilian casualties regrettably occurred.
  • Given reason for civilian harm
    Inside target building
    Airwars’ assessment of belligerent’s civilian casualty statement
  • Initial Airwars grading
    Confirmed
  • Civilian deaths conceded
    17–29
  • Civilian injuries conceded
    None
  • MGRS coordinate
    38SLF313241
    Military Grid Reference System

Civilian casualty statements

US-led Coalition
  • Jan 31, 2019
  • June 13, 2017, near al-Shifa neighbourhood, Mosul, Iraq via Airwars report. Coalition air assets struck multiple ISIS targets in defense of ground forces. Regrettably, since the targets were in the midst of residential structures, it is likely that 11 civilians were unintentionally killed as a result of two Coalition engagements on the same street.

Original strike reports

US-led Coalition

For June 12th-13th the Coalition publicly stated: “Near Mosul, five strikes engaged five ISIS tactical units and destroyed 14 fighting positions, six mortar systems, two sniper positions, a weapons cache and a tactical vehicle.”

Unknown Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    Unknown
  • Unknown position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Summary

  • Strike status
    Declared strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    35
  • (14 children9 women12 men)
  • Civilians reported injured
    1
  • Cause of injury / death
    Heavy weapons and explosive munitions
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Confirmed
    A specific belligerent has accepted responsibility for civilian harm.
  • Known attacker
    US-led Coalition
  • Suspected attacker
    Unknown
  • Known target
    ISIS

Sources (27) [ collapse]

Published

July 17, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Civilian casualties from the U.S.-led war against the so-called Islamic State are on pace to double under President Donald Trump, according to an Airwars investigation for The Daily Beast.

Airwars researchers estimate that at least 2,300 civilians likely died from Coalition strikes overseen by the Obama White House—roughly 80 each month in Iraq and Syria. As of July 13, more than 2,200 additional civilians appear to have been killed by Coalition raids since Trump was inaugurated—upwards of 360 per month, or 12 or more civilians killed for every single day of his administration.

The Coalition’s own confirmed casualty numbers—while much lower than other estimates—also show the same trend. Forty percent of the 603 civilians so far admitted killed by the alliance died in just the first four months of Trump’s presidency, the Coalition’s own data show.

The high civilian toll in part reflects the brutal final stages of the war, with the densely populated cities of Mosul and Raqqa under heavy assault by air and land. But there are also indications that under President Trump, protections for civilians on the battlefield may have been lessened—with immediate and disastrous results. Coalition officials insist they have taken great care to avoid civilian deaths, blaming the rise instead on the shifting geography of battles in both Iraq and Syria and Islamic State tactics, and not on a change in strategy.

Whatever the explanation, more civilians are dying. Airwars estimates that the minimum approximate number of civilian deaths from Coalition attacks will have doubled under Trump’s leadership within his first six months in office. Britain, France, Australia, and Belgium all remain active within the campaign, though unlike the U.S. they each deny civilian casualties.

In one well-publicized incident in Mosul, the U.S. admits it was responsible for killing more than 100 civilians in a single strike during March. But hundreds more have died from Coalition attacks in the chaos of fighting there.

“Remarkably, when I interview families at camps who have just fled the fighting, the first thing they complain about is not the three horrific years they spent under ISIS, or the last months of no food or clean water, but the American airstrikes,” said Belkis Wille, Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Many told me that they survived such hardship, and almost made it out with the families, only to lose all their loved ones in a strike before they had time to flee.”

Across the border in Raqqa, where the U.S. carries out nearly all the Coalition’s airstrikes and has deployed artillery, the civilian toll is less publicly known but even more startling. In the three months before American-backed forces breached the city’s limits in early June, Airwars tracked more than 700 likely civilian deaths in the vicinity of the self-declared ISIS capital. UN figures suggest a similar toll.

A girl passes a bomb crater in West Mosul, April 12th 2017 (Image by Kainoa Little. All rights reserved)

Annihilation Tactics

A number of factors appear responsible for the steep recent rise in civilian deaths—some policy-related, others reflecting a changing battlespace as the war enters its toughest phase.In one of his first moves as president, Trump ordered a new counter-ISIS plan be drawn up. Second on his list of requests were recommended “changes to any United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force against ISIS.”

In short, Trump was demanding that the Pentagon take a fresh look at protections for civilians on the battlefield except those specifically required by international law. That represented a major shift from decades of U.S. military doctrine, which has generally made central the protection of civilians in war.

On Feb. 27, Secretary of Defense James Mattis delivered the new war plan to Trump.

“Two significant changes resulted from President Trump’s reviews of our findings,” Mattis later said at a May 19 meeting of the anti-ISIS Coalition. “First, he delegated authority to the right level to aggressively and in a timely manner move against enemy vulnerabilities. Second, he directed a tactical shift from shoving ISIS out of safe locations in an attrition fight to surrounding the enemy in their strongholds so we can annihilate ISIS.”

Though the U.S. military had shifted to such annihilation tactics—a change cited with glee by the Trump White House—Mattis claimed there have been no updates to U.S. rules of engagement. “There has been no change to our continued extraordinary efforts to avoid innocent civilian casualties,” he told reporters.

We are winning because @realDonaldTrump and Sec. Mattis have jettisoned a strategy of attrition for one of

ANNIHILATION. https://t.co/08xfMF2KX3

— Sebastian Gorka DrG (@SebGorka) July 11, 2017

When Airwars asked the Department of Defense whether, once implemented, the new plan was expected to lead to more civilian casualties, officials did not answer the question and only pointed to Mattis’ remarks.

Yet beginning in March 2017—the month after Mattis handed over the new plan—Airwars began tracking a sharp rise in reported civilian fatalities from U.S.-led strikes against ISIS. In part this was due to the savagery of the battle for Mosul. But in Syria—where almost all strikes are American—likely civilian fatalities monitored by Airwars researchers increased five-fold even before the assault on Raqqa began.

Local monitors including the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights have also reported record Coalition civilian deaths in recent months.

Airwars itself tracks local Iraqi and Syrian media and social media sources for civilian casualty allegations, then makes a provisional assessment of how many were killed. The Coalition’s own casualty monitoring officials recently described Airwars as “kind of part of the team” when it comes to better understanding the civilian toll. However the US-led alliance has also contested many of the allegations tracked by Airwars, and its researchers are currently engaging with the Coalition to assess these incidents.

Reported Coalition civilian deaths jumped up steeply shortly after US Defense Secretary Mattis’ new plan to defeat ISIS was adopted in late February 2017

Despite disagreements over estimates, all parties agree that casualty numbers are steeply up. There is less agreement on why. Ned Price, spokesman for the National Security Council under the Obama administration, says recent reports strongly suggest the kind of change in rules that Mattis is denying.

“There is a tremendous disconnect between what we’ve heard from senior military officials who are saying there has been no change in the rules of engagement and clearly what we are seeing on the ground,” he said in an interview.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration had reportedly already become more tolerant of civilian casualties towards the end of the president’s second term. Authorization procedures for anti-ISIS strikes were loosened prior to Trump taking office, amid high attrition among Iraqi ground forces as they battled to capture East Mosul.

“The rise in allegations is attributable to the change in location of Iraqi operations against ISIS, not strategy,” said Coalition spokesperson Col. Joe Scrocca. “East Mosul was much less populated than west Mosul and the infrastructure is more modern and more dispersed. The month of March saw the start of ISF operations in the much more densely packed west Mosul. West Mosul has many more people, is much more densely populated, and the infrastructure is much older and more tightly packed.”

“In regard to Syria, where previous to March, the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] was predominantly operating in sparsely populated terrain, strikes increases is attributed to Coalition support to SDF operations to liberate Tabqah and isolate Raqqah,” he added.

In Syria, there are a number of other potential factors at play. The U.S. has deployed its own troops on the ground to advise and call in airstrikes for the SDF, and fire artillery into ISIS controlled areas. Protecting those forces will now be a priority for U.S. airstrikes—though may place any nearby civilians at greater risk of harm. Local monitors say the SDF’s own spotty track record of accuracy in their strike requests over the past several years has also been magnified by the stepped up pace of the campaign in and around Raqqa.

“I think it’s not helpful to get into an argument about whether the ROE [Rules of Engagement] have or have not been changed,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington Director at Human Rights Watch. “The bottom line is more civilians are dying. Whatever the reason, that should concern the U.S. greatly.”

At the State Department, Larry Lewis—in January still its top official dedicated to civilian casualties—felt the implications of Trump’s request to the military were clear. “If we are losing opportunities to hit ISIS because we are nervous about civilian casualties, if it is not required by law—then we are saying really look at it hard,” he told Airwars in an interview, explaining the new messaging. “To me that is a striking contrast with the past administration.”

For Lewis— who was the lead analyst for the Joint Civilian Casualty Study, which inspected ways that U.S. forces could reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan—the new administration is making a wrongheaded assumption.

“There is this misnomer that mission success is inversely proportional to reducing civilian casualties,” said Lewis. “That’s not what the data said.”

When his position was not renewed by the Trump State Department, Lewis left in late April.

“We have spent a long time advancing the idea that preventing civilian casualties is not only a moral imperative, it’s also an operational one,” said another former State Department official who recently worked on civilian casualties. “These lessons come directly from our military’s counterinsurgency experiences in Afghanistan and are endorsed by members of our military at some of the highest levels. But so far we haven’t seen or heard anything that shows President Trump understands that.”

‘I’m going to lose my sh*t’

By most accounts, the Obama administration became increasingly focused on reducing civilian casualties from U.S. actions—both on and off the conventional battlefield. In July 2016, Obama issued a new executive order, one which Lewis helped draft, that codified procedures for limiting civilian casualties in war, and put in place interagency reviews and annual reporting. (A former State Department official confirmed that interagency consultations on civilian casualty trends are no longer taking place under the Trump administration.)

Early in the campaign against ISIS, tolerance for civilian casualties outside of dynamic attacks was minimal, said Col. Scott “Dutch” Murray, who served as the Director of Intelligence for Air Forces Central Command. Murray led all deliberate targeting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria until 2015.

“The default answer was zero civilian casualties for all deliberate strikes,” he said.

Civilian casualties nevertheless grew as the campaign wore on under Obama. The U.S.-led Coalition continued to drop thousands of bombs targeting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, killing more than 2,300 civilians in airstrikes under Obama according to Airwars estimates. Still, there was a sense among some in the military that they had been shackled, and were being prevented from pursuing ISIS with heavier firepower.

“I was one of those people—some days it was like if I see another article about ISIS folks going around the Corniche in Raqqa and the U.S. does nothing, I’m going to lose my sh*t,” said a former senior counterterrorism official who served in the region under the second Bush administration and Obama. “I think Trump wanted to give the military what they wanted, and I think the military got it.”

Deaths up 400%

As conflicts intensify, it can be difficult to assign culpability for all strikes—especially in Mosul, where deaths are blamed variously on the Coalition, Iraqi forces, or ISIS.

But in March alone, Airwars could still estimate that the number of civilian deaths likely tied to the Coalition in both Iraq and Syria rose by more than 400 percent. The month after Mattis delivered the new plan, U.S.-led forces likely killed more civilians than in the first 12 months of Coalition strikes—combined.

The deadliest incident so far admitted by the Coalition in either country took place on March 17 in the al Jadida neighborhood of Mosul. According to U.S. investigators, at least 105 civilians were killed when an American jet dropped a 500-pound bomb on a building where they sheltered. The U.S. said its forces aimed for two ISIS fighters on the roof, but the entire building gave way—a clear sign, claimed investigators, that the building had been rigged with explosives by ISIS. Survivors and Mosul civil defence officials denied the U.S. narrative, insisting they had seen no evidence of ISIS explosives.

The scenario itself—a small number of gunmen darting in and out of view before drawing heavy fire from Coalition forces—was one which Airwars had repeatedly highlighted as leading to civilian deaths. In one profiled case from December, eleven members of a family were killed when the Coalition bombed a house—reportedly after a single ISIS fighter had been seen on a roof two houses down. The toll in al Jadida represents a significant portion of the 603 casualties publicly conceded by the Coalition. That tally has grown considerably in recent months, but is still many times lower than Airwars’ own estimates of at least 4,500 civilians likely killed.

Devastation in Raqqa following an alleged Coalition airstrike on May 27th 2017 (via Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Better than the Russians?

On April 13 of this year, U.S. forces in Afghanistan deployed a 21,000-pound GBU-43/B “Mother of All Bombs” against ISIS forces in the Nangarhar province of eastern Afghanistan. The bomb was the largest used by the U.S. in any conflict since World War II. Explaining the decision to use the weapon, which the White House evidently hadn’t directly approved, Trump told reporters at the time he had given the military “total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing.” Later that day, a reporter from The Hill called CENTCOM’s press office, where a purported spokesperson answered.

“We mean business,” said the person who picked up. “President Trump said prior that once he gets in he’s going to kick the S-H-I-T out of the enemy. That was his promise and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Though the response was later called unauthorized by CENTCOM leadership, a new tone had emerged—or reemerged. “If your leaders are emphasizing the high value of Raqqa and Mosul, while saying less about the strategic and moral risks of hurting civilians, it’s going to affect your judgment,” said Tom Malinowski, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State until this January.

“But I’m not sure how to disentangle that from other factors,” he added. “It was inevitable that civilian casualties would rise as the fight moved into densely populated areas, where ISIS would use civilians as a shield. By how much, I don’t know.”

Meanwhile, in Syria, the understaffed Coalition investigations team was struggling to keep pace with the number of civilian casualty reports. At Airwars, there were so many Coalition allegations that its own researchers temporarily had to pause their full vetting of Russia’s strikes in Syria to stay on top of the fast growing workload. Airwars tracking also shows that in every month of 2017, more alleged civilian casualty events have been attributed to the U.S.-led Coalition than to Russia—a remarkable reversal. “We know that the Russians target civilians and Assad drops barrel bombs,” said the former senior counterterrorism official. “DoD wants to be better than that, but it’s the fog of war—how do we know we are being better?”

#InternationalCoalition forces is the second perpetrator of massacres in #Syria after #SyrianRegime forces in the first half of 2017 pic.twitter.com/crw7cY9gj3

— Syrian Network (@snhr) July 5, 2017

‘Critical Flaw’

With reported Coalition civilian casualties steeply rising, international agencies rang the alarm bells.

In May, the UN’s human rights chief called out the bombing campaign. Then in June a UN-appointed Commission of Inquiry for Syria, which previously wasn’t even investigating foreign airstrikes in the country, now said the U.S.-led campaign was causing a “staggering loss of life.” By the end of the month, at least 173 civilian deaths from air and ground strikes were reported by the UN, which suggested that both the SDF and Coalition could be skirting the edges of international law.

The Coalition dismissed the most serious of the Commission’s allegations—that many civilians sheltering in a school near Raqqa were killed by an airstrike on March 21st—after an investigation that did not involve interviewing locals.

U.S. officials similarly dismissed well-documented allegations that a March raid in Aleppo on al-Qaeda linked targets had left dozens of civilians dead without speaking to a single witness. Lack of interaction with sources on the ground—who readily speak with groups like Human Rights Watch — has been identified as a “critical flaw” in the U.S. government’s methodology.

Instead of addressing the issue of high reported civilian deaths, top Coalition commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend has gone on the offensive. He lashed out at the UN Commission, calling into question their description of civilian casualties as staggering.

“Show me some evidence of that,” he told the BBC.

On July 2nd, Townsend reported that Coalition forces were firing on anything moving on the River Euphrates, along which Raqqa lies. “We shoot every boat we find,” he told a reporter from the New York Times. Airwars has documented numerous civilians reported killed in recent weeks as they had attempted to flee Raqqa by way of the river. Shortly after Townsend’s remarks, Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered reported that at least 27 people in Raqqa had recently been killed attempting to fetch water around the Euphrates.

2) Four June cases where (mostly named) civilians reportedly bombed as they fled Raqqa by boat. Cars also being bombed as civilians flee pic.twitter.com/HX3SqJoJgF

— Airwars (@airwars) July 3, 2017

Then, on July 11th, Townsend lashed out at Amnesty International, after it cited the Coalition in an investigation for potentially unlawful attacks that took place in Mosul.

“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,” Townsend told reporters.

Amnesty responded by pointing out the Pentagon never replied when the group’s investigators provided them with preliminary findings and asked for their input. With the battle in Mosul all but complete, organizations like Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) have instead called on the U.S. to be more cautious in their deployment of firepower inside Raqqa. The group wrote in a recent assessment that the Coalition should “avoid, to the extent feasible, airstrikes as a primary tactic, and consider tactical alternatives—for example, properly trained SDF conducting more door-to-door clearing operations to minimize civilian harm.”

But a massive casualty toll among Iraqi partner forces in Mosul—coupled with new demands from President Trump to speed up the war while reducing protections for civilians—could mean there is less appetite among U.S. officials on the ground to hold back approval for strikes. “I think the U.S. has to conduct a balancing test of a quick win and the accompanying high civilian casualty rate, versus a longer, more cautious victory, which might result in more civilians harmed at the hands of ISIS, or more coalition casualties,” said Jay Morse, CIVIC’s military liaison and a former Pentagon JAG. “It’s not an easy decision, and either route will prove harmful to civilians.”

Kori Schake, a former director at George W. Bush’s National Security Council and editor author of a recent book with Mattis, agreed that allowing local forces to call in U.S. airstrikes could increase the number of civilians killed. But the Obama White House was too careful, she said.

“The previous administration seemed to believe wars could be fought and won without casualties, and the professionals in this administration have the grim experience that’s not possible,” she added. “I am skeptical our military is any less careful without the White House second guessing them.”

Col. Murray says that while the current White House is clearly more permissive, it may not be fair to directly compare the conflict as it existed under successive administrations.

“Now when you bomb Raqqa there is actually potential to have success on the ground,” he said. “I think they’ve now erred more on the military advantage gained by a strike versus holding back for the sake of not killing civilians.”

But Fadel Abdul Ghany, director of the Syrian Network For Human Rights, said that what his organization and others have monitored speaks for itself. On July 1st, the Network reported that the Coalition had killed more than 1,000 civilians in the first half of 2017.

“We believe that the U.S. administration is seeking a quick victory,” said Abdul Ghany. “But the speed comes at the expense of accuracy, and therefore at the expense of the loss of more lives.”

▲ Multip[le bodies are removed June 13th by civil defence (via Mosul Ateka)

Published

July 1, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Additional reporting by Latif Habib, Alex Hopkins and Eline Westra

Mosul is almost completely back in the hands of Iraqi government forces, after one of the most brutal city assaults witnessed in decades. While there has so far been no formal declaration of an end to the assault, Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has already said that “We are seeing the end of the fake Daesh state, the liberation of Mosul proves that.”

Yet even as Iraqis celebrate the routing of the terror group ISIS (so-called Islamic State) from their nation’s second city, the scale of death and destruction visited upon Mosul is becoming clearer.

Thousands of Moslawis have credibly been reported killed since October 2016, with West Mosul in particular devastated. The Coalition alone says it fired 29,000 munitions into the city during the assault. Five times more civilians were reported killed in west Mosul versus the east of the city, Airwars tracking suggests – an indication of the ferocity of recent fighting.

Doctors working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) near the last frontlines report that they have still been receiving mass civilian casualties – up to half of whom are children.

“They come with shrapnel wounds, bleeding even from their eyes, shot in the head, after being buried under the rubble, traumatized by the air strikes, the artillery, the snipers, the bombs, having lost their whole family – and too, often, dying on arrival,” said Iolanda Jaquernet, a spokeswoman for the ICRC. “They have survived with very little food or water, without any access to healthcare, in hiding, and often indeed unable to reach a health facility until it was too late.”

“We have no overall figures, but certainly our colleagues from the mobile surgery team at the hospital have seen a tremendous increase in civilian casualties over the past weeks,” she added.

According to city officials, as much as 80 per cent of West Mosul has been completely destroyed. Civilians still emerging from the battlefield are often bloodied and starving – traumatised by Iraqi and Coalition bombardments; and by atrocities commited by ISIS.

According to reporters accompanying Iraqi forces, the stench of death is everywhere in the Old City – with civil defence officials reporting that as many as 4,000 bodies still remain unrecovered in the rubble. It is likely to be many months before the full death toll is known.

https://twitter.com/iraqi_day/status/880698291792605184

Bloodied civilian survivors are escorted from the Old City – ISIL’s last stronghold in Mosul – by Iraqi federal police on June 30th

Three months longer than battle for Stalingrad

Operations to retake Iraq’s second largest city from ISIS began on October 17th 2016, and effectively lasted for 256 days – three months longer than the epic Battle of Stalingrad in World War Two.

An estimated 100,000 Iraqi security personnel, 40,000 Kurdish fighters and about 16,000 pro-government fighters took part in the battle. Military casualties have been high. Although the government refuses to release official figures, thousands of Iraqi forces have been credibly reported killed or injured.

The Coalition is declining to estimate how many ISIS fighters were killed in the battle for Mosul. Instead an official told Airwars: “Through our operations, the Coalition has degraded ISIS fighters on the front lines, but also their command and control apparatus, leaders, industrial base, financial system, communication networks, and the system that they use to bring foreign fighters in to fill their ranks in both Iraq and Syria.”

But the civilian toll too has been high. Over the course of the Mosul assault, Airwars tracked over 7,200 alleged civilian fatality allegations in the vicinity of Mosul which were blamed on the US-led Coalition. Most of these incidents remain difficult to vet, and in the majority of cases several actors in addition to the Coalition are blamed – including ISIS and Iraqi security forces.

Even so, Airwars researchers presently estimate that between 900 and 1,200 civilians were likely killed by Coalition air and artillery strikes over the course of the eight month campaign. Many hundreds or even thousands more may have died in Coalition actions – though it may be impossible in many cases ever properly to attribute responsibility. Coalition airstrikes on the city were carried out by the United States, Britain, France, Belgium and Australia – while both the US and France also conducted heavy artillery strikes in support of Iraqi forces. French forces alone have reported over 1,160 artillery actions.

In one tragic incident confirmed by the US, up to 12 civilians were killed or wounded after one of its airstrikes hit a school in Faisaliyah neighborhood in East Mosul on January 13th. In its March civilian casualty report the Coalition conceded that  “during a strike on ISIS fighters in a house it was assessed that eight civilians were unintentionally killed. During post-strike video analysis civilians were identified near the house who were not evident prior to the strike.”

Airwars was able to speak with a witness, Qusay Saad Abdulrazaq, who lost his two young children in the attack. The father said in a letter that the Coalition strike had hit the Al Marafa private school at 9am that day. His children, Abdulrahman and Aesha, did not survive. When Airwars spoke with Mr Abdulrazaq two months after the incident, he had finally been able to bury the recovered body parts of his children.

فريق بي بي سي يصل إلى مدنيين عالقين في #الموصل. روى العالقون قصصا مؤلمة وهم يشاهدون أحبائهم جثثا هامدة ولا يستطيعون دفنها. #العراق pic.twitter.com/qznnBMhtns

— BBC News عربي (@BBCArabic) June 30, 2017

BBC Arabic’s Feras Kilani reports from devastated Old Mosul, June 30th 2017

Victory declared

Victory was effectively declared by Iraqi forces on June 29th after they captured what remained of the once-treasured al Nouri Mosque, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had declared the terror group’s ‘caliphate’ in a 2014 speech. On June 23rd Iraqi and Coalition officials accused the group of rigging the structure with explosives and blowing it up as fighting closed in. By most accounts only a few Mosul city blocks now remain under ISIS control, though fears remain of terrorist sleeper cells in liberated neighbourhoods.

In addition to copious and often indiscriminate fire from Iraqi forces and ISIS, the Coalition has launched over 1,000 airstrikes in Mosul since October 17th, in addition to artillery, helicopter, rocket and mortar fire. With high civilian casualties reported, Airwars joined with international NGOs during the battle to urge Iraqi and Coalition forces to end their use of heavy and indiscriminate weapons on the city.

Belkis Wille, Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch, says the battle has wrought devastation on civilians, their homes and the city: “With the massive spike in airstrikes and indiscriminate ground-fired munitions by Iraqi and US forces, we have seen entire city blocks obliterated, and hundreds of civilians wounded and killed in the crossfire,” she told Airwars. “ISIS has used the civilians still under its control as human shields and carried out numerous abuses including chemical weapons attacks and executions of those trying to flee.”

The deadliest incident so far admitted to by the Coalition took place on March 17th, when US planes bombed a building in the city’s al-Jadida neighborhood. The structure collapsed, leaving at least 105 civilians dead according to military investigators – though locals claimed the true toll was far higher. The Coalition also claimed the structure had been rigged with explosives by ISIS, though the city’s civil defence officials deny this. The al Jadida incident was ranked “contested” by Airwars until the Coalition admitted to it months later – suggesting that many more civilian deaths may yet be ascribed to international forces.

ISIS’s remaining strongholds in Iraq, including Hawijah, are likely to be the next target of Iraqi and Coalition actions. But for the people of Mosul many troubles remain. Almost 700,000 Moslawis are still displaced by the fighting according to the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Even after liberation, some Mosul residents are still being forced to leave. On June 30th, the UN’s human rights office reported that it was alarmed by a “rise in threats, specifically of forced evictions, against those suspected of being ISIL members or whose relatives are alleged to be involved with ISIL.”

It will likely be a long time before many can return. The physical destruction in Mosul – and most of all in the more densely packed western side – is still being assessed. But footage of neighborhoods, including those around the Old City, show a catastrophic level of damage that will take years to reconstruct. According to Iraqi officials, the cost of phsyical reconstruction is likely to be tens of billions of dollars.

▲ Nadia Aziz Mohammed looks on as Mosul civil defence officials search for the bodies of 11 family members, killed in a June 2017 airstrike (Photo by Sam Kimball. All rights reserved)

Incident Code

CI752

Incident date

June 7, 2017

Location

حي الزنجيلي, Mosul, Zinjili, Nineveh, Iraq

Geolocation

36.346628, 43.113637 Note: The accuracy of this location is to Within 1m (via Coalition) level. Continue to map

Airwars assessment

In an incident not previously tracked by Airwars, the Coalition confirmed the death of a civilian in an incident near Mosul in June 2017.

Their September 2017 civilian casualty report noted: “During a strike on ISIS fighters engaging partner forces from a fighting position, it was assessed that one civilian, not observed near the target before the engagement, was unintentionally killed.” The Coalition provided Airwars with the location for this incident, accurate to within a one metre box. The location given placed the event in southern Zanjili.

Australia has conceded harm in this event. An ADF briefing issued on September 29th 2017 noted:

“On 7 June 2017, one Australian aircraft conducted an airstrike in support of Iraqi Security Forces who were under direct fire from enemy fighters in Mosul. Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel were also involved in the Coalition approval process.

“A single precision guided munition was released, striking the target and destroying a section of a building used by Daesh as a defensive fighting position. During the post-airstrike review process, ADF personnel reported it was possible that a civilian
may have been present in the strike location. The personnel involved, using the information available to them, acted in compliance with the laws of armed conflict and Australian rules of engagement.”

It additionally noted: “The second incident occurred on 7 June 2017 in West Mosul. West Mosul was an incredibly dangerous area with Daesh taking over Iraqi civilian homes, booby trapping the buildings and using them as defensive fighting positions. The Iraqi Security Forces were conducting clearance operations which required removing Daesh fighters street by street.

“During the operation to re-take West Mosul, Iraqi Security Forces were regularly engaged by Daesh fighters using small arms, heavy machine guns, mortars and rocket propelled grenade launchers. On the 07 June, Australian F/A-18 aircraft supported Iraqi Security Forces who were under direct fire from Daesh fighters using small arms. A thorough assessment of the target, a residential building that was occupied by Daesh fighters, was conducted to ensure all feasible precautions were taken to minimise harm to civilians, and ISF operating in the area, and to reduce potential damage to property.
A strike was conducted on the Daesh fighting position with one precision guided, low collateral, munition.

“No civilians were observed in the area prior to the strike, however after the routine post-strike review and analysis process, ADF personnel assessed that it was possible that civilians may have been present in the location of the strike when people were observed to leave the rear of the target building. In accordance with our own processes, the ADF personnel reported the incident to the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) for further assessment including a thorough legal review.
Consistent with our normal procedures, ADF personnel were involved in the Coalition strike approval process for this mission.

“Based on the information available, OIR assessed that it was more likely than not a civilian was seriously injured or killed as a result of the strike against Daesh fighters on 7 June, however the report also noted that all feasible precautions were taken to prevent civilian casualties prior to the strike.”

The local time of the incident is unknown.

Summary

  • Strike status
    Declared strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    1
  • Cause of injury / death
    Heavy weapons and explosive munitions
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Confirmed
    A specific belligerent has accepted responsibility for civilian harm.
  • Known attacker
    US-led Coalition
  • Known target
    ISIS

Sources (3) [ collapse]

Media
from sources (1) [ collapse]

  • The Coalition p[rovided Airwars with the exact coordinates of a strike which it says killed one civilian

US-led Coalition Assessment:

  • Known belligerent
    US-led Coalition
  • US-led Coalition position on incident
    Credible / Substantiated
    The investigation assessed that although all feasible precautions were taken and the decision to strike complied with the law of armed conflict, unintended civilian casualties regrettably occurred.
  • Given reason for civilian harm
    Unseen at time of engagement
    Airwars’ assessment of belligerent’s civilian casualty statement
  • Initial Airwars grading
    Confirmed
  • Civilian deaths conceded
    1
  • Stated location
    near Mosul, Iraq
    Nearest population center
  • Location accuracy
    1 m
  • MGRS coordinate
    38SLF3072424047
    Military Grid Reference System

Civilian casualty statements

US-led Coalition
  • Sep 1, 2017
  • June 7, 2017, near Mosul, Iraq, via self-report: During a strike on ISIS fighters engaging partner forces from a fighting position, it was assessed that one civilian, not observed near the target before the engagement, was unintentionally killed.

Original strike reports

US-led Coalition

For June 6th-7th the Coalition reported: “Near Rawah [20km from Anah], two strikes engaged an ISIS tactical unit and destroyed four ISIS staging areas, an ISIS headquarters, and an ISIS warehouse.“ It additionally added that on June 6th “Near Rawah, Iraq, one strike engaged an ISIS tactical unit.“

Summary

  • Strike status
    Declared strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    1
  • Cause of injury / death
    Heavy weapons and explosive munitions
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Confirmed
    A specific belligerent has accepted responsibility for civilian harm.
  • Known attacker
    US-led Coalition
  • Known target
    ISIS

Sources (3) [ collapse]