The Iraq War started 14 years ago this month, and it is showing no signs of letting up. Since President Trump took office, the U.S. military has expanded its aerial bombing campaign targeting areas held by the Islamic State. The Air Force Times is reporting U.S.-backed military aircraft have dropped over 2,000 bombs on the ISIS-held city of Mosul so far this month. According to Airwars, almost 1,500 civilians have reportedly been killed in U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria this month alone. On March 17, a U.S. airstrike in Mosul reportedly killed up to 200 civilians. Meanwhile, Amnesty International is reporting that hundreds of Iraqi civilians have been killed by U.S.-led airstrikes inside their homes or in places where they sought refuge following Iraqi government advice not to leave during the offensive to recapture the city of Mosul. We speak to Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: The Iraq War started 14 years ago this month, and it’s showing no signs of letting up. Since President Trump took office, the U.S. military has expanded its aerial bombing campaign targeting areas held by the Islamic State. On Tuesday night, Trump briefly talked about the war in Iraq.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’re doing very well in Iraq. Our soldiers are fighting and fighting like never before, and the results are very, very good.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: This comes as the Air Force Times is reporting U.S.-backed military aircraft have dropped over 2,000 bombs on the ISIS-held city of Mosul so far this month. According to the journalistic outfit Airwars, almost 1,500 civilians have reportedly been killed in U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria this month alone. On March 17th, a U.S. airstrike in Mosul reportedly killed up to 200 civilians. The Pentagon is now admitting it carried out an airstrike at the location where the civilians were killed, but U.S. officials are placing part of the blame for the high death toll on ISIS. On Wednesday, the head of U.S. Central Command, Army General Joseph Votel, testified before the House Armed Services Committee.
GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL: There’s a fair chance that we may have contributed to this, and so now we have moved to the investigation phase. So, it’ll be—it’ll be a more formalized approach to really look into the details of this as much as we can, to establish what happened, establish what the facts are, identify accountability and then, certainly, identify the lessons learned out of that.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Amnesty International is reporting hundreds of Iraqi civilians have been killed by U.S.-led airstrikes inside their homes or in places where they sought refuge following Iraqi government advice not to seek—not to leave during the offensive to recapture the city of Mosul. This is Wa’ad al-Tai speaking about his family members who were killed in November after they followed the Iraqi government’s instructions not to leave the city.
WA’AD AL-TAI: [translated] My son Yousef, age nine; my daughter Shahad, age three; my brother Mahmoud Ahmed Mahmoud, his wife Manaya and their son, Aws Mahmoud; and my other niece, Hanan Saad Ahmad.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Donatella Rovera, who is a senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International. She’s joining us from London. She was last in Mosul two weeks ago.
Donatella, welcome to_Democracy Now!_ Can you tell us what you found there? Tell us about what happened on March 17th and about the Iraqi government telling people not to leave their homes, then bombing them.
DONATELLA ROVERA: With regard to the strike that happened on March 17, the details are really not known as yet. There are allegations. There are reports. We at Amnesty International have not had a chance to investigate that particular attack on the ground as yet. The United States has now promised to carry out an investigation. The Iraqi authorities initially denied that the alleged strike was the work of the coalition, but rather that it had been an ISIS attack. But now there seems to be admission that that strike was indeed an airstrike from the coalition.
However, what I would like to draw your attention to is the fact that civilians have been killed in their homes from the very beginning of the operation to recapture Mosul, which started in October of last year. All the cases that I investigated during my time on the ground in Mosul were in east Mosul, between the end of October and late January, when that part of the city was completely recaptured by Iraqi forces. And family after family I spoke to, the sites that I visited were all of homes, civilian homes, that had been struck, and their residents, or the people who were sheltering in those homes, were killed. And that was, indeed, after Iraqi forces dropped leaflets telling people, advising them, to remain in their homes. So, the fact that civilians were—residents of Mosul were in their homes was very well known prior to the beginning of the military campaign.
Similarly, the fact that ISIS militants use civilians as human shields, in addition to carry out countless other crimes, that, too, was well known both to Iraqi forces and to the members of the coalition, the U.S.-led coalition that is taking the lead in the air campaign. So, provisions should have been made to take into account that particular fact, in order—you know, as deciding what kind of military strategy to pursue to recapture the city. What I have seen on the ground is entire homes, sometimes two or three houses, one next to the other, having been completely destroyed, reduced to rubble. And, of course, those civilians who were in those houses, in many cases, really had no chance of coming out alive. And in most of those cases, the residents and the survivors themselves told me that there were ISIS members who were on the roof or perhaps in the garden or around the house. Certainly, those ISIS militants could have been targeted with munitions that have a smaller blast radius and that create less collateral damage, rather than destroy a whole two- or three-story house full of civilians because of two or three ISIS militants on the roof.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Donatella, one Republican representative here in the U.S., from Arizona, has questioned whether the high standards for avoiding civilian casualties should not be met, in fact, that they’re, quote, “ridiculous,” because they allow ISIS militants to use civilians as a defense so that ISIS can, quote, “live to fight another day.” So, do you think this policy by the U.S. to avoid as many civilian casualties as possible is likely to change, or, indeed, has it already changed?
DONATELLA ROVERA: Well, obviously, we’re not privy to that level of details, you know, to the details of the exact rule of engagements. We are aware that there have been discussions in the media and elsewhere about a possible relaxation of the rules of engagement of recent—in recent weeks. I don’t know whether that’s the case or not. But certainly, even if the rules of engagement have not changed and remain what they were at the beginning of the operation, what I have seen on the ground in east Mosul suggests and actually strongly indicates that not everything that could and indeed should have been done to spare civilians, to protect civilian life, has been done.
At Amnesty International, we’re not naïve to the fact that urban warfare inherently carries risks for civilians, and that it would be naïve to hope that a war in the middle of a city like Mosul could happen without any civilian casualties. You know, those, unfortunately, are part of that particular equation. However, that fact alone and the fact that ISIS uses civilians as human shields do not in any way relieve the fighting parties—in this case, the U.S.-led coalition as well as the Iraqi forces who are doing the fighting on the ground—do not relieve them of their obligation under international law. It is plainly clear that it is possible to take additional measures to protect civilians. And, you know, as I said earlier, the choice of munitions when fighting in a densely populated urban area is paramount. A margin of error or even—of even just a few meters, using munitions that have a much wider blast radius, will ultimately put at greater risk civilians who are in the vicinity of the target itself.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, this is—this is what—
DONATELLA ROVERA: Precision munitions are available. They have been used in other theaters. They have been used in Iraq, as well, at other times. And they could help to minimize civilian casualties.
AMY GOODMAN: This is what Defense Secretary James Mattis said this week, when he was asked about the increased number of civilian casualties in and around Mosul.
DEFENSE SECRETARY JAMES MATTIS: There is no military force in the world that has proven more sensitive to civilian casualties. We are keenly aware that every battlefield where an enemy hides behind women and children is also a humanitarian field. And we go out of our way to always do everything humanly possible to reduce the loss of life or injury among innocent people. The same cannot be said for our adversaries. And that’s up to you to sort out.
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can respond to that, Donatella Rovera? And also, clearly, it took a lot for the U.S. to say that they were going to investigate, the mounting evidence of what happened on March 17th alone, where it looks like possibly over 200 civilians were killed.
DONATELLA ROVERA: Well, first of all, I mean, you know, I would certainly concur with the statement that ISIS hides behind civilians and that ISIS does not care about respecting international law. In fact, it does everything it can to violate it, and does so very openly. That’s very true. But that’s been known for a long time, and it should have been taken into consideration when planning the military campaign.
As for the other part of the statement, that every measure is taken to minimize civilian casualties, I would find it difficult to agree with that, because of what I’ve seen on the ground. As I said, residents in Mosul were very open about the fact that ISIS positions snipers on their rooftops, usually in very small numbers, obviously, again, to avoid being detected, or that ISIS fighters were going in and out of houses, hanging around in people’s gardens and so on and so forth. Nobody has been denying that. The fact is the kind of measures that have been taken—when targeting those ISIS militants, what kind of measures were taken to protect the civilians around them? Because the kind of scenes that I’ve seen in Mosul is entire houses collapsed, brought down by airstrikes, in order to target one or two or three individuals on a rooftop. Every military expert knows that there are other means available, other types of munitions available, that will not bring down an entire building but will take out legitimate targets. I mean, we’ve seen, even in Mosul, at times in the past, ISIS fighters being taken out while driving on a motorcycle. So, you know, there is no dispute that more precise munitions than large bombs that bring down an entire building are available and are being used in other theaters. So, you know, that could help to minimize civilian casualties for sure.
With regard to this investigation that is going on, according to statements made by U.S. personnel, that—about the attack of the 17th of March, obviously, that’s a good thing that there should be an investigation. The investigation should be independent. It should be thorough. But also, the same kind of investigation should be conducted, and indeed should have been conducted earlier, into the kind of casualties that have resulted from other strikes that have been taking place earlier on in the campaign, from October. And perhaps if that kind of investigation had been done at the end of the or during the fight in east Mosul, it might have informed the kind of strategy to be used in west Mosul. There was about a month pause between the fighting in east Mosul and the renewed fighting in west Mosul. So, perhaps if that time had been used to have a proper investigation and a review of civilian casualties, that occurred in their hundreds in east Mosul, it might have informed the strategy to pursue in west Mosul, and perhaps incidents such as that reported on the 17th of March with a very large loss of civilian lives, according to reports—perhaps those incidents might have been avoided.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Donatella, very quickly, before we conclude, could you tell us what the situation is of civilians trying to flee west Mosul?
DONATELLA ROVERA: Obviously, fleeing the fighting is very difficult, but we are seeing civilians fleeing west Mosul in much, much greater numbers than those—than the numbers who fled from east Mosul, partly, perhaps, because the message has got through to civilians that staying in your homes, as they were advised to do, is not necessarily the safest option. And so, many more people are taking the risk to try and flee with their families. It is risky for them to remain, and it is risky for them to flee. But we are seeing a much larger number of civilians fleeing west Mosul than was the case for the east part of the city.
AMY GOODMAN: Donatella Rovera, we want to thank you for being with us, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International. The organization released a report this week, “Civilians killed by airstrikes in their homes after they were told not to flee Mosul.”
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