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Devastation in Mosul: Iraq Seizes City from ISIS, But Battle Left Thousands Dead & 700,000 Displaced

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Iraq’s nine-month-long battle to retake Mosul from the self-proclaimed Islamic State is coming to an end, but the humanitarian crisis is not. According to the United Nations, almost 700,000 residents are still displaced—nearly half living in emergency camps. Airwars is estimating between 900 and 1,200 civilians were likely killed by coalition air and artillery strikes during the assault on Mosul, but the overall death toll is significantly higher. The International Red Cross reports seeing a tremendous increase in civilian casualties in recent weeks. We are joined by Azmat Khan, an award-winning investigative journalist and a Future of War fellow at New America. She has spent the last year and a half investigating how the U.S.-led war against ISIS is playing out on the ground in Iraq.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Iraq, where the nine-month-long battle to retake Mosul from the self-proclaimed Islamic State is coming to an end. On Sunday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi traveled to Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, to congratulate his troops.

PRIME MINISTER HAIDER AL-ABADI: [translated] Honestly, I’ve come to Mosul today to follow up on our victories and the eradication of ISIS, which we are in the final moments of doing. ISIS fighters have chosen to be besieged, because they had been given two options in the past: surrender or death. Most of them chose to die. They didn’t choose surrender, except for a small number. But the others were killed. We have no other option for ISIS fighters, if they don’t surrender, besides death. And we have done that. Most ISIS fighters in Mosul have been killed. And what we have left now is a small number. I will leave some room for the heroic armed forces to complete this action so that we can announce victory soon, God willing.

AMY GOODMAN: While the fighting is nearly over in Mosul, the humanitarian crisis is not. According to the United Nations, almost 700,000 residents are still displaced—nearly half living in emergency camps. This is Lisa Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq.

LISA GRANDE: In western Mosul, what we’re seeing is the worst damage of the entire conflict. So, in those neighborhoods where the fighting has been the fiercest, we’re looking at levels of damage incomparable to anything else that has happened in Iraq so far.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: According to the journalistic monitoring group Airwars, U.S.-backed coalition forces fired 29,000 munitions into the city during the nine-month assault. Airwars is estimating between 900 and 1,200 civilians were likely killed by coalition air and artillery strikes during the assault on Mosul, but the overall death toll is significantly higher. The International Red Cross reports seeing a tremendous increase in civilian casualties in recent weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Azmat Khan, award-winning investigative journalist, a Future of War fellow at New America. She’s spent the last year and a half investigating how the U.S.-led war against ISIS is playing out on the ground in Iraq.

You were recently in Mosul. Talk about the devastation there and the significance of what’s just happened.

AZMAT KHAN: The devastation in Mosul is unprecedented when compared to every other city retaken from ISIS. Now, it is symbolic and long-fought. Mosul was the largest city overtaken by ISIS. But no one believes this is over. The level of destruction is incredible. There will be violence to come, despite these last pockets finally having been taken. Even when east Mosul, on the other side, was retaken several months ago, there were a spate of suicide bombing, of booby traps, of rigged homes, of snipers, of things that happened to really antagonize the local population even after it had been retaken. And we’re going to see much more of that on this other side of Mosul. This west Mosul side really has seen coalition airstrikes. It’s seen ISIS attacks. It’s borne the brunt of things in incredible ways that are just unprecedented when compared to other parts of Iraq.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And why has it been so devastating? Is it that ISIS had support among the population, or is it that there were many more fighters involved? What precisely—or is it just indiscriminate bombing on the part of the U.S. forces?

AZMAT KHAN: There’s certainly a history involved here. Now, this side of Mosul was where many of those who were antigovernment violent groups, not just ISIS, but others, had largely been present in this part of the city. It is also sort of historically one of the areas in which these groups were able to sort of camp out. And so what you’ve seen is certain parts of it were incredibly symbolic—al-Nuri mosque, which is where Baghdadi appeared several years ago, and we recently saw blown up by ISIS. Many of these artifacts are in this area. It was the last sort of holdout area. It was essentially a siege, in many ways, by these ISIS fighters who have been left. But historically this part of Mosul, because it’s closer to the border with Syria, has been where a lot of militants who have crossed borders have been located.

And in this case, you’ve seen both that historical role factor in, but you’re also seeing the fact that just the terrain itself is harder to retake. And so you have, essentially, a much, much harder fight when compared with east Mosul. And then you have a pace of airstrikes. People were ready for this—for this last city to be retaken, this last major city to be retaken. There are still parts of Iraq that are held by ISIS. But the air war and these airstrikes have played a large role in liberation periods. So, the closer you get to liberating a city in Iraq, you’ll see the pace of airstrikes go up. You’ll see the threshold for civilian casualties go up. And that’s what we’re seeing right now in west Mosul.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, the old idea of they had to destroy the village to save it. But the horror of Mosul, you being there, describe your conversations with people, where you were, and what people were saying about ISIS, about the United States, about the Iraqi security forces.

AZMAT KHAN: Well, one of the things I heard repeatedly, from hundreds of people that I’ve spoken to, is the fact that when ISIS first took over, they weren’t incredibly strict, in the first month or so of them having taken over. And this was not just because of ISIS itself. It was because it was aligned with other antigovernment groups that took less strict of a line. That changed as time went by. People who had originally welcomed ISIS, because they were upset with the government, found themselves starting to doubt or question not just the religiosity of ISIS, but also its intentions with the local population. What many people said turned them were things—for example, the way that they detained people, the way that they executed people publicly, the way that police and other members of the security forces had been targeted. Their family members and others had sort of been eradicated as soon as ISIS moved in. But all of those things became far more invasive as time went on.

So, you know, you had this as one sort of aspect of what civilians in Mosul underwent, but then you had the air war, which started in August of 2014. Now, the Iraqi Air Force had already been bombing ISIS territories. But when the coalition, the U.S.-led coalition, joined, the pace of airstrikes went up considerably. And Mosul has seen a large brunt of those airstrikes. At least 2,000 of some 13,000 that the Air Force has conducted—I’m sorry, that the coalition has conducted in Iraq took place in Mosul. And so, these civilians have basically been threatened by those airstrikes. Meanwhile, ISIS has embedded themselves in their local populations.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. You’ve investigated also how ISIL did its deliberate embedding into the population, especially through marriage. Could you talk about that?

AZMAT KHAN: Yeah. So one of the key sort of ways in which that they would map out a local population is to find families that were important in towns and cities across Iraq, and then work out ways to marry into some of those families if they thought it was possible. And so I saw this happen in many towns in and around Mosul, where ISIS had found locals who either had sources of profit, who were key members of the community, and if they felt they could not turn them, they might kill them. If they felt they could marry into them, they would take that option. That was one part of it.

But you also have to look at the actual geography of what’s happening. ISIS lived so close to ordinary civilians, in residential communities. They would set up things such as IED factories in homes, inside communities. They would set up communications hubs, communications facilities, inside homes. They would set up bread houses for ISIS fighters. And so, essentially, you have a number of what the military or the coalition or even the Iraqi Air Force might consider legitimate targets right next to civilian homes. And so, this expectation that civilians could ever sort of remove themselves from their presence is really unrealistic. There’s really no way for them to avoid that proximity.

AMY GOODMAN: What exactly was the U.S. involvement in Mosul?

AZMAT KHAN: In the air campaign? It’s been quite unprecedented. So, the U.S. has been in charge of this coalition that has been bombing Mosul. They also have a land component that is, you know, involved in working very closely with Iraqi forces and with Peshmerga forces. And what you’ve seen over the last several months, the last nine months of this campaign, is incredibly close collaboration, a lot of training and working very closely with allied forces in that area.

Now, we’ve heard of some deaths of U.S. servicemen in Iraq in part of this fight, of people who have been quite close to areas of the battle. They’re not necessarily on the most front lines of what’s happening right now. This is where Iraqi forces have sustained huge losses, really incredibly unprecedented. Many of them say to me that they had never had this sort of level of destruction or this type of fight in the more than 10 years that Iraq has sort of been a hub for this constant violence.

So you’re seeing a U.S. role in terms of organizing, in terms of facilitating these airstrikes, in terms of closely collaborating to coordinate different kinds of attacks. It’s deeply intertwined. And what the Air Force and what the military and what others that are part of this coalition will tell you is that this is Iraqi-led, but there’s clearly—you know, I’ve been to towns and cities that Shia militias had tried to retake. Shia militias do not get U.S. air support or coalition air support, necessarily, when they’re trying to retake a city. So I saw these militias try and fail. And then, when the Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces that the coalition does provide air support for, tried to retake it, and air support would be provided, you immediately saw those cities and towns fall. And so, in many ways, while some of these victories are often portrayed as the work of local forces, you can’t deny the role that the coalition and its air support, many of which have been B-52 bombers and large-scale aerial assaults, have played in retaking those.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What about the issue of the large numbers of people imprisoned and detained across the country for their connection to ISIS?

AZMAT KHAN: So, one of the things we rarely hear talked about is, after a city or town is retaken, is that the men and women of that village or town are separated. The women are often cleared quickly, and the men are put through a vetting process to see whether or not they had links to ISIS or to insurgents. And so others are interviewed. And they essentially compile a list of names. They check the list of names for these men. And if these men aren’t cleared, they’re detained.

And so, in many of these towns we’ve seen thousands of men detained. For example, after Ramadi was retaken, thousands of men have been put in prison. Some of them have still not yet been released, even though they have not necessarily been found guilty of having any links to ISIS, but the question remains. And so what you have, essentially, are thousands of men, in cities and towns that have recently been liberated, still imprisoned, while their families are waiting for them to be released. Sometimes they are told that if they pay a bribe, they can see their husbands or brothers released from prison, their sons released from prison. The detention factor is a huge problem.

Mosul is a much larger city than any of these other towns. The idea of rounding up the men and women and putting all of the men in prison or putting them through a vetting process like that is a lot harder in an area that’s still being fought. But we’re likely to see, in the weeks and months to come, this sort of listing of who was involved with ISIS, who collaborated, and the possibility for revenge-driven motivations in naming people as a means for detention.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you also, just to follow up on something you mentioned before about the lack of support for the Shia: What is the status, from what you were able to tell in your reporting, of the relations between the Shia and the Sunni within Iraq, since that was a major part of the problem of the government being able to form and function in the early years of the U.S. invasion?

AZMAT KHAN: Well, I want to be clear that there are many different kinds of Shia militias. And so, there are some, that we’re probably the most familiar with, that have been accused of some of the most grave human rights abuses in Iraq. So, militias like Badr, Hezbollah and others have been accused of rampant human rights violations, for which there is widespread evidence. Then there are militias that are more closely aligned with the clerical establishment, in Karbala and Najaf, the two sort of biggest and most holy cities for Shias in Iraq. Those ones, you know, are often aligned to the clerical establishment and thus also will have close relations with the Iraqi government, will be trained by the Iraqi government. There’s a distinction in these two different kinds of groups of militias in terms of human rights abuses.

So, that latter category has had better relations with other different kinds of Iraqi forces and Iraqi groups. Hashd al-Shaabi, which is the sort of name for these Shia militias as a whole, also have a component of—there’s a component of the so-called Hashd that are also Sunni tribal militias that have developed. Some of them have quite good relations with some of the Shia militias that are in these areas.

But I’ve talked to many people, for example, in towns in areas south of Mosul, so not Mosul itself, but towns and cities south of Mosul, where Shia militias are now camped out, and locals are incredibly afraid. One of the things that Mosul residents talk about is the fear of those militias coming into Mosul after this liberation is over—they’ve kind of been held back, to some extent—but to have them come in and sort of—and wage the same kind of devastation you’ve seen in other liberated cities. And the threat that’s posed to these Mosul residents has them envisioning this idea for their own militias, of their own military rule. And so, what you see is really a tit-for-tat cycle of violence that could ensue for years to come.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to follow up on the question of detention. In 2014, former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg said the use of torture by the U.S. helped fuel the rise of the Islamic State. This is a part of what he said.

MOAZZAM BEGG: ISIS was born in the dungeons of Abu Ghraib. It was born in the dungeons of the Iraqi prisons that were under U.S. occupation. And that’s where this hatred and animosity has festered. So what we’ve found now, we’re in a situation that’s worse than the beginning of the war on terror. And when torture was used, when Dick Cheney said we have to operate in the dark side, what he didn’t say was what was going to be the consequence of that torture.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Moazzam Begg. And this goes to what you understand about torture. And also, what does it mean to say ISIS has been routed from Mosul? What kind of response will there be from the people and other groups that could form, not to mention ISIS reconstituting?

AZMAT KHAN: So, first, with respect to this, the role of torture in the rise of ISIS, what I’ve often found in studying the demographics of ISIS members is that many of them, a large percentage of them, were detained in the early years, after 2003, rounded up by police forces and oftentimes beaten, tortured, and other allegations that come from their family members, as part of the reason for why they ultimately joined—they may have been a part of anti-U.S. resistance groups at the time, but why this sort of threat evolved into what ISIS is today. It played a very critical role. There’s no doubt about that. Their ability to galvanize the local populations, so not just in thinking about fighters themselves, but in garnering support from local populations in these cities and towns that ISIS took over, detention played a huge role in that. So in a city like Ramadi, one of the key sort of protests, the issues in one of these protests, was the fact that women had been detained. People don’t talk about this with respect to the rise of ISIS and its sort of hold on these populations, but it’s played a major role.

With respect to your second question and Mosul residents and, you know, what we might expect to see to come, we can largely expect to see a lot of revenge-driven violence. So individuals who are accused of collaboration, so not necessarily of even being a fighter, but of having operated a restaurant or of having operated a business that ISIS members frequented often, may result in their being named. We’ll also likely see the demolishment of homes—the demolition of homes in which ISIS members formerly lived. You’ll likely see a lot of violence in the years to come that comes down to exactly what we were talking about, which is who rules, right? What are these deep divisions that led to the rise of ISIS taking over these towns and cities, this resentment towards the national government? What happens next? You know, do they get their own sort of—a bigger stake in the government? Do they have more of a say? Or will they try to develop their own mechanisms for rule in the time to come?

AMY GOODMAN: And those places like Hawija and Tal Afar, still ISIS strongholds, and how ISIS came to be so strong, like in Hawija?

AZMAT KHAN: Exactly. So, Hawija was the site of major protests and sit-ins in 2013, one of which resulted in the killing of more than a hundred men that were part of a sit-in. Footage from that sit-in, from this April 2013 sit-in, went viral across Iraq. So, in places like Ramadi and in Fallujah, that footage was many of the reasons why locals came to go protest. And ISIS soon exploited those protests as a means to ultimately take over those towns and cities. Hawija is still, in these—both Hawija and Tal Afar are in the northern region. Both of them are still ISIS strongholds, and they’re going to be some of the most difficult to retake. They’ve also seen the site—they’ve been the sites of some of the most of devastating airstrikes. It’s smaller areas than Mosul. But you’ve see, you know, widespread—for example, in 2015, there was an industrial district in Hawija that was hit by an airstrike that resulted in the deaths of up to as many as 70 civilians, many of them IDPs who had left other areas.

AMY GOODMAN: Internally displaced people.

AZMAT KHAN: Exactly, internally—they had left other areas of violence, had fled to Hawija—and died in what was, you know, an airstrike on lots of munitions, so it resulted in many secondary explosions. And what you have are local populations that have been under siege. It’s been very difficult for them to leave. And it’s hard to assess who they’ll blame when this is over.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there, but we certainly will continue to cover it. Azmat Khan, award-winning investigative journalist, a Future of War fellow at New America. She has spent the last year and a half investigating how the U.S.-led war against ISIS is playing out on the ground in Iraq. She’s just back from Mosul. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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