US-backed Iraqi forces said the military operations against ISIS in Mosul have been paused, after the US military admitted carrying our deadly airstrikes that killed hundreds of civilians last week.
Approximately 230 residents were buried in collapsed buildings in the Iraqi city of Mosul on March 17 after an air strike against Islamic State triggered a massive explosion last week.
Iraqi sources said that airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition targeting Islamic State militants may have detonated a truck filled with explosives, destroying buildings in a heavily populated area.
Local lawmaker Faris al-Sanjari told Reuters the coalition air strike had targeted a truck bomb causing a huge explosion.
“You can’t kill dozens just to destroy a booby-trapped truck parked near houses,” he said.
Civil Defence chief Brigadier Mohammed Al-Jawari told local reporters that rescue teams were retrieving bodies from under the debris in the Mosul Jadida district near Rahma hospital, the site of heavy fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State.
Jawari said in a statement saying teams had so far recovered 40 bodies from buildings that collapsed.
“Finding survivors is very difficult because the area is completely destroyed,” he told reporters. “It’s a very big disaster, indeed we can describe it as a disaster.”
“A coalition air strike hit a residential street last Friday and destroyed at least 30 houses,” a police civil defense official said. “We halted rescue operations today for lack of heavy equipment, jack hammers, and trucks to remove debris.”
US admits responsibility for the attack
At first, the coalition did not give details on any specific air strike or comment on a Mosul Jadida district operation, and the excuses were always ready as they said investigation are bein conducted.
“We are aware of reports on airstrikes in Mosul resulting in civilian casualties. The Coalition conducted several strikes near Mosul and we will provide this information to our civilian casualty team for further investigation,” the coalition said in a statement.
Mark Kimmitt, a former US assistant secretary for political and military affairs, said that while the deaths of civilians were unfortunate, such “incidents happen in combat”.
The US-led coalition admitted carrying out the deadly air raids.
“An initial review of strike data … indicates that the coalition struck (ISIL) fighters and equipment, March 17, in west Mosul at the location corresponding to allegations of civilian casualties,” the US military’s Combined Joint Task Force said in a statement on Saturday.
The coalition said it had struck the area “at the request of the Iraqi security forces” and was investigating to determine the facts and the validity of reports of civilian casualties.
More than 500 civilians killed in a week
Iraqi officials and witnesses say that air raids in west Mosul have killed hundreds of people in recent days, but the exact number of victims could not be independently confirmed.
Bassma Bassim, the head of the Mosul District Council, said “more than 500” civilians were killed by air raids over the past week alone.
“I have never met so many people with so many martyrs in their families,” Bassim said, adding that witnesses are questioning whether civilians are being targeted on purpose.
“I have talked to so many people from the victims’ families who confirmed that there are only five or six ISIL fighters in the new Mosul area who freely move in the streets without being targeted. They said only civilians in the area are being targeted.”
Earlier on Saturday, the UN expressed profound concern over the escalating civilian death toll in the battle to retake Mosul.
“We are stunned by this terrible loss of life,” Lise Grande, the humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said in a statement.
She added that civilians were at extreme risk as the fighting intensified and all sides must to do their utmost to avoid such casualties.
“International humanitarian law is clear. Parties to the conflict — all parties – are obliged to do everything possible to protect civilians. This means that combatants cannot use people as human shields and cannot imperil lives through indiscriminate use of firepower,” she said in a statement.
Military operations stopped, new tactics needed
Iraqi government forces paused in their push to recapture western Mosul on Saturday because of the high rate of civilian casualties, a security forces spokesman said, a move apparently motivated by the incident.
“The recent high death toll among civilians inside the Old City forced us to halt operations to review our plans,” a Federal Police spokesman said on Saturday.
“It’s a time for weighing new offensive plans and tactics. No combat operations are to go on.”
A journalist said that thousands of civilians are “trapped” inside the Old City and exposed to the intense fighting.
“ISIL fighters have been using snipers on top of the building in the city shooting randomly at any civilians, including children,” she said.
“Many children in the hospital near Erbil have known to be specifically targeted by these snipers. We can see a very complicated battle ahead.”
The U.S.-backed offensive to drive Islamic State out of Mosul, now in its sixth month, has recaptured the entire eastern side of Mosul and about half of the west.
But advances have stuttered in the last two weeks as fighting enters the narrow alleys of the Old City, home to the al-Nuri mosque where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate spanning large areas of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
“We need to make sure that taking out Daesh (Islamic State) from the Old City will not cost unwanted high casualties among civilians. We need surgical accurate operations to target terrorists without causing collateral damage among residents,” the Federal Police spokesman said.
A U.S. deputy commanding general for the coalition told Reuters on Friday that the solution could lie in a change of tactics. The Iraqi military is assessing opening up another front and isolating the Old City, U.S. Army Brigadier General John Richardson said.
Airstrikes are called more randomly
Before, Iraqi officers were highly critical of the Obama administration’s rules, saying that many requests for airstrikes were denied because of the risk that civilians would be hurt. Now, the officer said, it has become much easier to call in airstrikes.
This is the second time this week that the military has opened an investigation into civilian deaths reported to have been caused by American airstrikes.
On Tuesday, Central Command said it was investigating an American airstrike in Syria on March 16 that officials said killed dozens of “al-Qaeda operatives” at a meeting place that activists and local residents maintain was part of a religious complex.
But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 49 people had been killed in what the group described as a massacre of civilians
Some American military officials had also chafed at what they viewed as long and onerous White House procedures for approving strikes under the Obama administration. However, Trump has indicated that he is more inclined to delegate authority for launching strikes to the Pentagon and commanders in the field.
Since the first days of his elections campaign, President Trump has said that his top priority is fighting ISIS and ending its presence in the region at all costs, apparently even at the cost of hundreds of innocent civilians lives.
“We cannot let this evil continue. Nor can we let the hateful ideology of radical Islam — its oppression of women, gays, children and non-believers — be allowed to reside or spread within our own countries,” Trump said in an August speech. “We will defeat radical Islamic terrorism, just as we have defeated every threat we have faced in every age before.”