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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

A family of six in al-Karamah neighborhood were hiding in their home October 6, fearful of the approaching fighting, listening to the voices of the ISIS fighters who policed their neighborhood in the street outside. Up until two days before, they had been using a house two doors down as a base, but had pulled out, moving to a house 150 meters from theirs. The father of the family said that his wife, Safana, decided not to stay in the house any longer:

She went out into the yard, and starting washing our clothes. Then suddenly, an explosion hit the yard. I immediately rushed outside to find Safana lying there, on the ground, with a wound in her back. She didn’t even make it to the hospital. She died on the way.

The yard of a home in al-Karamah neighbourhood, hit in an attack targeting ISIS forces in the neighbourhood on around November 25, 2016. About 30 internally displaced people were seeking shelter in the yard at the, but only three died in the attack.

© 2017 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

Aden Neighborhood, November 17, 2016

On the afternoon of November 17, two dozen civilians from four families huddled together in a room in a three-story house in Aden neighborhood while gunfire and explosives rocked the neighborhood. Mahba Jassim, one of the men in the group said, that they listened as intense fighting neared the area:

Then, at about 2:30 p.m., a few ISIS fighters, who occupied another house two doors away, banged on our door. My father opened the door and the fighters tried to force him to let them go up onto our roof. He refused, and slammed the door in their faces.

Suddenly they heard an explosion close by and about two minutes later a second explosion collapsed their house’s two top floors.

A home in Aden neighborhood destroyed by an attack targeting ISIS forces using an airdropped GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb on November 17, 2016 that killed eight civilians and wounded another 16.

© 2017 Andrea DiCenzo for Human Rights Watch

Everyone in the house was buried by rubble and the neighbors rushed to their aid and to dig them out. The attack killed eight children, and wounded another sixteen civilians. In the rubble, we found remnants of an airdropped GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, a guided munition with a relatively small explosive payload used by coalition forces.

Based on an inquiry Human Rights Watch sent to the US-led coalition, a coalition spokesman confirmed on February 11 that the coalition did carry out a strike in the area of Aden neighborhood on that day and had transmitted Human Rights Watch’s findings to its civilian casualty team for further investigation.

Zuhur Neighborhood, November 24

On the morning of November 24, the Iraqi forces took control of the Zuhur neighborhood, bringing a tank and other military vehicles. Ibrahim Abd al-Karim said:

We started hearing gunfire, and, we found out later, ISIS fighters had been going door-to-door, telling families to flee the area for their own protection. I was standing at the window, looking out at the Iraqi army’s vehicles as they were rolling into the neighborhood when suddenly a car that was parked right outside our house just exploded.

A metal fragment blinded Abd al-Karim in his left eye.

Namir Nishwan, who lived next door, said that his family was hiding in the bathroom. Their phone rang and when his father ran out of the bathroom to answer it, the car exploded, throwing him back, breaking his right arm and leaving metal fragments all over his body.

A home in Zuhur neighborhood destroyed by an ISIS car bomb targeting Iraqi Security Forces on November 24, 2016 that wounded at least two civilians.

© 2017 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

Al-Karamah Neighborhood, November 25, 2016

Residents of al-Karamah neighborhood said that their neighborhood was full of civilians who had fled fighting in other parts of the city and were hiding in their homes. One home off the main street had a large yard, and the owner had welcomed about thirty displaced people who sought shelter there.

In the morning of November 25 or so, about eight ISIS fighters were standing in the street outside of the home when something hit the inside western wall of the house.

Three civilians were badly wounded. They were able to crawl out of the rubble and onto the street, but died before they could be taken to the hospital. The residents didn’t know whether any of the fighters were wounded.

Falah Neighborhood, December 11, 2016

On the morning of December 11, ground fighting intensified in the Falah neighborhood. Sixteen family members and neighbors, including six children, sought protection in a small space behind an apartment building. They were surrounded by walls on three sides and metal bars on the fourth side and above them. They could hear ISIS fighters who had been in charge of their neighborhood for months on the streets.

At about 9:30 a.m., an incoming projectile struck a vehicle in front of the apartment building, causing an explosion that set the building on fire. Smoke began to suffocate the group behind the building. One man was able to climb up the metal bars and force a space open in the top. Saad Abdullah said:

The remains of an apartment building in Falah neighbourhood that lit up in flames after an attack against ISIS forces on the street outside, on December 11, 2016. 16 civilians hid in the back of the building and eight were able to escape while the other eight burned to death.

© 2017 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

When the fire started, I was sure we would all die. I started handing up the babies to my cousin, so he could get them to safety, then the older kids. We got six out. But then the fire was getting too close, so I climbed up the bars and got out. My sister and two of my cousins died as they were climbing up the bars.

Human Rights Watch could later see the flesh still stuck to the bars where Abdullah’s sister and cousin had held the rails as they burned to death. Altogether eight civilians died, including one of the children.

This attack was locally reported as a coalition airstrike, and based on an inquiry Human Rights Watch sent to the US-led coalition, a coalition spokesman confirmed on February 15 that the coalition did carry out a strike in the area of Falah neighborhood on that day and had transmitted Human Rights Watch’s findings to its civilian casualty team for further investigation.

Falah Neighborhood, December 13, 2016

Iraqi forces took control of an area of Falah neighborhood on the morning of December 13. “You cannot believe how happy we were, thirty-five of us all gathered together in my home to dance and celebrate,” said Saad al-Tawil. “But then we heard the gunfire start.”

At about 11:15 a.m., gunfire broke out and one neighbor, Mustafa Kulaiba, ran upstairs to get a better view of the street from the upstairs window. After about five minutes al-Tawil heard a large explosion. He said glass from the window shattered, and shards hit Kulaiba’s body and his right eye, blinding him. Al-Tawil’s son was also wounded. In the house opposite, three members of a family died, including one child, and two other children were wounded. In the house next door, eight people from two families died, including three children. On the street outside the house were about fifteen Iraqi soldiers, as well as two Humvees and one larger military vehicle at the time of the attack, he and other neighbors said

Altogether, eleven civilians, including four children, were killed, and at least another four people were wounded in the apparent car bomb attack. At least four houses and two cars were destroyed. Three days later, Al-Tawil returned to the area and learned from an Iraqi military commander that thirteen soldiers had also been wounded in the attack.

Al-Sukar Neighborhood, December 14, 2016

Many residents of the al-Sukar neighborhood fled in early December because the area had run out of water and they feared future fighting. Hassan Ali, his wife, and their three daughters had remained in their home along with a few other neighbors.

On December 14, ISIS fighters began firing mortars from a position about 100 meters away from the house. The Iraqi forces were about a kilometer away. Fifty meters from the house was al-Khansa Hospital, whose compound had been occupied by about fifty ISIS fighters, including its mosque, since 2014.

Ali said:

At 12:45 p.m. I had to leave home to find us more fuel. We had no fuel, almost no water, left in the area. My brother-in-law was visiting at the time so I was not worried. I had only gotten about 100 meters away, when I heard two whizzes behind me and then a blast. It was so loud! I spun around and saw that they had targeted my house. I ran home as fast as I could.

Ali found parts of his wife and daughters’ bodies among the rubble. Two days later he found the body of his brother-in-law. Three other homes were destroyed in the strike.

“I still haven’t found the rest of the bodies of two of my daughters,” he said.

Three homes destroyed in an attack targeting an ISIS-occupied hospital in al-Sukar neighbourhood on December 14, 2016 that killed at least five civilians.

© 2017 Human Rights Watch

On December 23, the ISIS evacuated all staff and patients from al-Khansa Hospital but kept its fighters there. The hospital compound was hit, including its oxygen bank, storage facility, and blood bank, at least a half dozen more times in the ensuing days.

Human Rights Watch visited the location of the attack and concluded, based on the pattern of blast and fragmentation damage at the location, that this was a multi-weapon airstrike using large air-dropped bombs (1,000 to 2,000 pounds). A collapsed (pancaked) multistory structure destroyed in the attack indicates that one of the weapons relied on delayed-action fuzing, which allows the bomb to penetrate the structure before detonating. One impact crater measuring more than two-meters in diameter was also located at the scene of the attack, indicating that weapon detonated upon contact.

Also present in the rubble of one of the hospital buildings were unfired US-made M702 ignition cartridges for mortars, indicating that ammunition for light weapons had been stored in the location. Some of the fragmentation damage on the surrounding structures at the site was consistent with the secondary detonation of light weapons ammunition stored at the location.

Al-Karamah Neighborhood, December 30, 2016

A car destroyed and home damaged by an ISIS car bomb targeting Iraqi Security Forces on January 1, 2017 that wounded at least one civilian.

© 2017 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

Residents of al-Karamah neighborhood said that on December 30, they saw four ISIS fighters standing in the street about 100 meters from their home, and another group of fighters in a house 50 meters away on the other side of the street. Alaa Mahmoud said:

Despite the situation, four of our kids from the neighborhood were playing just by the gate of our house. Suddenly something landed right by where they were playing. Musab, who was just eleven, was killed instantly. Rana, who was nine, had her head blown right off.

A neighbor’s two daughters, who had been playing with Musab and Rana were wounded.

Two days later, Iraqi forces retook the neighborhood.


(c) 2017 HThe Progressive

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