Iraq’s security forces have killed at least 75 civilians and wounded hundreds of others in indiscriminate air strikes on five cities since June 6, 2014. Human Rights Watch documented 17 airstrikes, the majority in the first half of July. Barrel bombs were used in six of them.
Government forces launched the attacks, which because of their indiscriminate nature violate international law, while trying to retake areas controlled by Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) fighters and other Sunni armed groups. Despite repeated government denials, government forces have resumed the use of the deadly barrel bombs in populated areas of Fallujah, Human Rights Watch found.
“The Iraqi government may be fighting a vicious insurgency, but that’s no license to kill civilians anywhere they think ISIS might be lurking,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s airstrikes are wreaking an awful toll on ordinary residents.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 30 witnesses, victims, medical staff, and family members of those killed by airstrikes in Fallujah, Beiji, Mosul, Tikrit and al-Sherqat. Of the 75 deaths in the attacks Human Rights Watch investigated, 17, including 7 women and 2 children, were a result of barrel bombs.
There was a consistent pattern of aerial bombardments in residential areas by government forces using helicopters, jets, and other aircraft. The attacks hit areas surrounding mosques, government buildings, hospitals, and power and water stations. Residents in Mosul, al-Sherqat, and the oil-refinery town of Beiji described a pattern of intensifying strikes throughout the first half of July in areas where groups of civilians had gathered.
The Iraqi government should immediately stop all indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas. Foreign governments providing military support and assistance should continue support only on the condition that the armed forces obey international humanitarian law and halt actions that disregard the consequences for civilians caught up in the conflict.
The United States has sent Iraq military aid, including Hellfire missiles, ammunition, and surveillance drones, since the Anbar conflict began in January and is debating other military initiatives in Iraq. In accordance with US law, though, it should immediately end its military assistance until the government of Iraq complies with international law, Human Rights Watch said. The Iraqi government’s continued unlawful attacks, despite its denials of such attacks, indicates that Iraq may continue to use military assistance in ways that violate international law and harm Iraqi civilians who are trapped between the government forces and insurgents.
Numerous witnesses also told Human Rights Watch that armed fighters from ISIS and other armed opposition groups have deployed some of their forces in or near populated areas, failing to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties, as required by the laws of war. International law requires an attacking party to take account of the risk to civilians that an attack would pose even when the opposing forces are present and have located military targets within or near populated areas.
Commanders who order the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas where there is a foreseeable and disproportionate harm to civilians have committed war crimes and should be held accountable, Human Rights Watch said. The same applies to those who order strikes on protected civilian objects, including medical facilities and personnel.
“Governments that are helping Iraq in its military campaign should pull back their aid until Iraqi forces and any other groups supporting them end their indiscriminate attacks on civilians,” Stork said.
For details of the attacks and accounts of individual witnesses, please see below.
Barrel Bombs in Fallujah
Human Rights Watch previously documented the Iraqi government’s use of barrel bombs in and around Fallujah from January through May 2014. Although the government never publicly acknowledged that it was using barrel bombs, it apparently told US military and State Department personnel that it would stop using these weapons. But after a brief lull, the bombing resumed, and has escalated since ISIS and other Sunni insurgent groups gained control of Mosul, Tikrit, and surrounding areas.
A doctor treating wounded civilians in Fallujah told Human Rights Watch on July 14 that seven of the city’s residential neighborhoods had been hit in 20 barrel bomb attacks that he had counted since January. Witnesses and family members of those killed described three barrel bomb attacks in July, in the neighborhoods of al Shurta and Hay al-Dhubat that caused massive damage, obliterating houses, burying families under the rubble, and often killing anyone nearby.
Human Rights Watch interviewed six witnesses and two medical staff in Fallujah by phone, who said government forces had dropped over a dozen barrel bombs in the city since early June. Four of the witnesses said they had seen helicopters drop barrel bombs and that multiple barrel bombs have landed in populated residential areas, demolishing houses and killing civilians.
On July 12, a 23-year-old Fallujah man described how his brother was killed on June 10 in an aerial attack on a market in central Fallujah:
On that day my brother was killed and seven market sellers were injured. It was a helicopter, I didn’t see it but I heard it. There was a whistling sound and then an explosion, like a rocket. There were no ISIS [fighters] in the market. They attack the local market at any time; even yesterday they fired on a market. Every time they see a group of people they strike. Yesterday I saw it was a jet attack, I don’t know the name of it but it was big, and it came very low.
Amar, 40, described a barrel bomb attack at about 10:40 p.m. on July 6 that killed his 42-year-old brother and two other people. He said he had been talking to his brother as he attended to the generator that provided electricity to residents in the al-Shurta neighborhood of Fallujah, only minutes before the attack:
He was killed by a barrel bomb. I was standing with him 10 minutes before at the generator. I went to my house which is about 50 yards away. The generator is in a yard and the barrel bombs fell on the street between the generator and the houses. No house was completely destroyed because it didn’t fall on the actual house. It was like an earthquake and I ran to my brother, I saw his body and I saw four cars burning in the street.
A man called Tha’er was also killed; he was a supermarket owner who had come to the generator to get a line for his house. He also worked as a teacher in a local school. The woman who was killed was called Jinan; her body was blown to pieces. We found a blanket and put the pieces in the blanket. I saw the bottom of the barrel and shrapnel. There was nothing in the barrel. My brother was in three pieces, his head and then he was sliced in the middle. I saw a ball of fire; it was dropped from a helicopter. I heard the sound of the helicopter clearly because it had dropped another bomb in the industrial area about 13 minutes before.
Civilians Killed in Mosul
In one of the most deadly attacks in Mosul, a witness told Human Rights Watch that as he walked toward the Tigris river at 5 p.m. on July 9, he saw a large white propeller-engine plane resembling a large cargo or passenger plane, circle overhead and then, without warning, drop a bomb on a section of the river close to Mosul’s al-Rhabat neighborhood. He said the bomb struck an area where hundreds of men and children were gathered to swim in the river and cool off before attending evening prayers.
Two witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they saw approximately 20 dead bodies and dozens of injured. Human Rights Watch confirmed with medical staff the names and ages of 12 of those killed, including a 4-year-old girl. Medical staff said that the force of the explosion when the bomb hit was so great that it was impossible to identify some of those killed.
Mosul residents confirmed that ISIS fighters have been in the town since early June, and have set up offices in various buildings. However, in seven of the fatal airstrikes Human Rights Watch documented, there were no reports that ISIS fighters were in the area or that there was active fighting around the time of the strike.
A 45-year-old merchant from Mosul described a bombing at the Tigris River in Mosul just before dusk on July 9 that killed at least 20 men and children and injured dozens more:
Around 5 p.m., I was going swimming in the river….When I got to the river I heard a plane pass, I am 90 percent sure it was white…. It was flying very high and very slowly. It makes this whirring sound. It is like an airbus, the planes we see at the airport. When I got to the river I was busy putting the keys of my car in the waistband of my shorts. I heard the humming noise of the plane and then the noise of the explosion on the right bank. It was about 150 meters away. Suddenly, I felt strong pressure from the blast... I looked up and saw everything… the water, rocks, everything flew up into the air.
Most of the young guys in Mosul go to the river during Ramadan because it is an oven in Mosul, it is so hot. There were people everywhere in the river, you couldn’t see the water it was so full of people. It was just people.
Attacks on Hospitals
Hospital staff told Human Rights Watch that hospitals in Beiji and Fallujah have been attacked multiple times. Witnesses said that ISIS fighters are in Beiji, including two who guarded the road near the hospital. Witnesses also reported seeing fighters in the vicinity of a hospital in Fallujah, which ISIS controls. The laws of war provide special protection to hospitals, whether civilian or military. Hospitals may not be targeted even when they are being used to treat enemy fighters.
Under customary international law applicable to the fighting in Fallujah and Beiji, hospitals remain protected unless they are used to commit hostile acts that are outside their humanitarian function. Even then, they are only subject to attack after a warning has been given setting a reasonable time limit, and after the warning has gone unheeded. Armed groups should not occupy or use medical facilities.
Attacks on Markets and Infrastructure
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that aerial attacks struck markets and areas where large groups of people gather. Three survivors of an aerial bombardment at about 7 p.m. on July 15 in al-Sherqat, south of Mosul, said that two bombs fell 500 meters apart near a crowded intersection as people left their homes after breaking the Ramadan fast.
According to a 23-year-old resident who said he was wounded in his legs by shrapnel, the first bomb hit the intersection, killing and injuring people in their cars and passers-by, while the second strike hit people who had gathered around stalls to buy watermelons, ice, and fuel. One witness, who said he aided in rescue efforts, said the two bombs killed about 21 people, including 6 children and 4 women.
Other government airstrikes appear to have targeted civilian infrastructure, including water and electricity supplies, and hospitals. In many of the attacks Human Rights Watch documented there was no evidence of a valid military target in the vicinity shortly before or at the time of the attack. On July 14 a helicopter strike on a water tower in al-Synia, a town near Beiji, directly struck a near-by house, killing five members of the Wadheha al-Jamour family, who were inside. A resident who buried the bodies said that the attack killed three children, their mother, and an older brother.
On July 15, an airstrike on the Beiji hospital hit an adjacent home, killing 11 people. Hospital workers reported that the strike also caused severe damage to the hospital’s emergency room, blood bank, and generator, and injured two hospital staff. Information from local residents supported by video footage seen by Human Rights Watch shows that another airstrike against the hospital in early July seriously damaged two nearby homes.
Barrel bombs are unguided, improvised weapons that Iraqi forces usually drop from helicopters. They are typically constructed from large oil drums, gas cylinders, or water tanks filled with high explosives and in some cases scrap metal to produce shrapnel. Barrel bombs have wide blast effects and, when deployed in populated areas, can cause substantial civilian loss of life and property destruction. The extreme unlikelihood that barrel bombs can be used to accurately target legitimate military objectives in populated areas almost always makes their use indiscriminate and in violation of the laws of war.
In addition to the use of barrel bombs, Human Rights Watch documented the consistent use of unguided air-dropped bombs in populated urban areas in Mosul, Tikrit, Fallujah, and in Al-Sherqat.
Iraqi government forces use both jets and helicopters to launch airstrikes, but Human Rights Watch found that they appear to have used modified cargo planes that flew at high altitude and dropped unguided bombs when carrying out some of the most recent and deadly strikes, such as the one documented in al-Rhabat.
Based on analysis of videos from bomb sites, photographs of remnants, and witness descriptions, Human Rights Watch found that many of the munitions used in these strikes are “dumb bombs,” including barrel bombs and unguided air-dropped bombs that lack guidance systems and so are, like their method of delivery, inherently indiscriminate if used in populated areas.
The use of these munitions by government forces in or near residential areas, markets, and other places where civilians gather has already resulted in high numbers of civilian casualties and breaches the obligation to minimize harm to the civilian population that applies to all parties to a conflict. Under international humanitarian law, Iraqi authorities have an obligation to take into account the risk to civilians that any particular attack would pose and to take steps to minimize civilian casualties.