Civilian deaths rising in fight against Islamic State
Death toll could rise to 200 after U.S.-led airstrikes on Mosul.
Scores of MOSUL, IRAQ — Iraqi civilians, some of them still alive and calling out for help, were buried for days under the rubble of their homes in west Mosul after U.S.-led airstrikes flattened almost an entire city block.
At the site on Sunday, more than a week after the bombing runs, reporters for The New York Times saw weary survivors trying to find bodies in the wreckage. Iraqi officials said the final death toll could reach 200 killed, or even more. That would make it one of the worst instances of civilian casualties from an attack by U.S.-led forces during the long American military presence in Iraq, starting with the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
The pace of fighting against the Islamic State here has grown more urgent, with Iraqi officers saying the U.S.-led coalition has been quicker to strike at urban targets from the air with less time to weigh the risks for civilians. They say the change is a reflection of a renewed push by the U.S. military under the Trump administration to speed up the battle for Mosul.
That push is coming at the moment that the battle for Mosul is nearing its most dangerous phase for civilians, with the fight reaching into the twisting alleys and densely populated areas of the old city.
That is where hundreds of thousands of civilians are pinned down in tight quarters with Islamic State fighters who do not care if they live or die.
At the same time, more U.S. Special Operations troops, some dressed in black uniforms and driving black vehicles — the colors of their Iraqi counterparts — are closer to the front lines. That way, in theory, the targeting of Islamic State fighters should become more precise for the coalition.
The Iraqi officers, by and large, welcome the change, saying that under the Obama administration coalition officers were too risk averse. Iraqis also say fighting for the dense, urban spaces of western Mosul requires more air power, even if that means more civilians will die.
When those decisions turn tragic, it looks like this: a panorama of destruction in the neighborhood of Mosul Jidideh.
One of the survivors, Omar Adnan, stood near his destroyed home on Sunday and held up a white sheet of paper with 27 names of his extended family members, either dead or missing, written in blue ink.
The civilian deaths have not been limited to the battle for Mosul, which is about 220 miles north of Baghdad. Across large swathes of Syria and Iraq, more U.S. ground troops, and more U.S. airstrikes, are being committed to the fight. In Syria, the battle has intensified in large part around Raqqa, the Islamic State’s declared capital. The campaigns in both countries intend to deprive the Islamic State of its biggest cities, while keeping pressure on the group across its holdings.
Allegations of civilian casualties in both countries from U.S.-led airstrikes have increased so much in recent months that, for the first time, the number of coalition strikes affecting civilians have surpassed those carried out by Russia in Syria, according to Airwars, a monitoring organization.
The group said the increase in reported civilian deaths began under President Barack Obama and accelerated once President Donald Trump took office in January.
Together, the intensified U.S. involvement in the fight against the Islamic State has raised questions about whether the Trump administration has relaxed procedures that are meant to keep civilian casualties at a minimum.
The U.S.-led coalition, which has confirmed it carried out a strike in Mosul Jidideh on March 17 and is investigating whether it is to blame for the deaths there, has insisted that there have been no changes to its rules of engagement.
Relatives and friends dig graves Saturday for two civilians killed in fighting between Iraqi security forces and Islamic State militants on the western side of Mosul, Iraq. U.S.led airstrikes flattened almost an entire block in the city.