On the Ground in Iraq’s Battle with the Islamic State—Civilians Caught in the Crossfire

The city of Mosul has been in the news lately as the Iraqi central government and Kurdistan Regional Government, with the support of a United States-led international coalition, undertook operations in October to retake the city—a last major urban stronghold of the Islamic State terrorist organization or ISIS.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians who live in Iraq’s second largest city survived two years of living under ISIS. Now they are caught in the middle of a raging battle.

Two years of living under ISIS and then caught in the middle of a raging battle. This is what life has been like for hundreds of thousands of civilians in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

The fighting has moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, often street by street. Iraqi forces on the ground were backed by Iraqi and coalition aircraft. The Islamic State (ISIS) used improvised landmines and suicide car bombers. By late January, the Iraqi forces controlled the eastern part of the city; in mid-February they launched operations to retake the western half.

When the fighting began, about 1.2 million civilians were in Mosul. Since then, at least 175,000 have fled their homes to seek refuge in government-controlled areas. Iraqi authorities have reported that more than 5,200 civilians have been killed or wounded inside Mosul since the military operation began. The Iraqi forces have taken measures to protect civilians, but casualties have been high.

In January, my colleagues and I interviewed dozens of residents in eastern Mosul who had remained in their homes as the fighting shifted to their neighborhoods. They shared horrific stories.

Samah Neighborhood, November 5, 2016

Ra`ed Jassim, a forty-seven-year-old shopkeeper, said that in the morning of November 5, he could hear fighting between Islamic State fighters controlling his neighborhood and approaching Iraqi forces. He was at home with his wife and six children when two heavily armed Islamic State fighters knocked on his door, and said they wanted to use his roof to get a better view. Jassim, knowing he couldn’t refuse, told them he would let them go to the roof if he accompanied them, hoping he could discourage them from firing from the roof, which would make his family a target. But once they reached the roof, an army sniper immediately started firing in their direction, so the fighters rushed back downstairs and left.

From the door, Jassim saw about twenty ISIS fighters in the street outside the house. He heard cars speeding off, then explosions—presumably suicide vehicles. A few minutes later, an explosion erupted in his neighbor’s empty house.

Remnants of a Russian-produced 220mm TOS-1A thermobaric rocket, an enhanced blast weapon, that was used in an attack targetting ISIS forces in Samah neighbourhood on November 5, 2016 that wounded five civilians.

© 2017 Andrea DiCenzo for Human Rights Watch

“I yelled to my family to all hide in the bathroom, my wife, my five daughters, and my son,” Jassim said. “At about 1:30 p.m., our house got hit. I felt the house shake and I clutched my son to my chest. He yelled out three times and then fell silent—I thought he had died.”

Jassim and his wife were able to push away the rubble and pull out their children, five of whom had been injured. ISIS fighters took them to a hospital. “I don’t have a weapon nor bullets. I have a garden, flowers and a shop. Why am I the guilty party and my house was targeted?” he asked.

We later found remnants of a Russian-produced unguided TOS-1A 220mm thermobaric rocket, a type of enhanced blast weapon, used in the attack.

Samah Neighborhood, November 6, 2016

Residents of Samah neighborhood stayed in their homes on November 6 when Iraqi government military vehicles moved into the neighborhood on the heels of fleeing ISIS forces. At about 12:30 p.m., three Iraqi Humvee trucks began pulling out for redeployment elsewhere. A parked car suddenly exploded, damaging the Humvees, wounding three Iraqi soldiers, and destroying three homes.

A cluster of 15 graves dug by family members in Samah neighborhood after an ISIS car bomb targeting Iraqi Security Forces on November 6, 2016 killed 23 civilians.

© 2017 Andrea DiCenzo for Human Rights Watch

Fahad, a neighbor, who arrived at the scene soon after, said:

I heard the voices of women screaming under the rubble. I shouted out at the voices, and the women and children yelled back that they were stuck under the rubble. I stuck my hand into the rubble and pulled out a child’s severed hand.

Families fled the area and did not return for several weeks. On November 9, an ambulance unlawfully used as a car bomb by the ISIS exploded on a parallel street. Seven homes and five cars were damaged, but because the residents had all left, no residents were harmed.

Fahad said that he returned to Samah neighborhood on November 26, and then he helped pull fifteen bodies from the rubble of the three homes: “I pulled one body from the rubble, he had lost his whole face. He was a skeleton, and worms were eating his flesh. The sight was tragic.”

We saw eighteen graves in the rubble next to the destroyed homes. Altogether twenty-three civilians in the three families, including eight children, were killed.

Al-Karamah Neighborhood, November 15, 2016