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.)

Mosul’s capture sees ISIS vanquished – but at a terrible cost

Written by Samuel Oakford on July 1, 2017


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.

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.

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.