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(Erbil) – A strike on a vehicle 80 kilometers from the Iraqi city of Mosul in December 2016 killed one civilian and wounded 11 others, Human Rights Watch said today. The apparent unlawful attack, in an area held by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), was most likely carried out by United States-led coalition or Iraqi government forces.

Human Rights Watch interviews with six witnesses to the attack and aftermath uncovered no evident ISIS target in the vicinity. Both the Iraqi military and coalition forces were conducting airstrikes and ground-based attacks in areas outside of Mosul, but Human Rights Watch was unable to identify the attacking force or the weapon used. The laws of war prohibit deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians.

Smoke rises from an airstrike during a battle with Islamic State militants in the Tahrer neighborhood of Mosul, Iraq on January 10, 2017.  © 2017 Reuters

“Attacking forces are obligated to take all feasible precautions to avoid harming civilians, including by first identifying the military target,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The large numbers of families on the move in ISIS-held territory are especially vulnerable to attacks.”

Because of the possible laws-of-war violation, all government forces involved in the attack should conduct a thorough, impartial, and transparent investigation to determine whether it was unlawful, Human Rights Watch said. The governments should pursue war crimes prosecutions as appropriate, and pay compensation or “amends” to victims. Under Iraqi law, a governmental committee is empowered to provide payment to victims of “terrorism and military errors.”

In early December, about 2,000 residents of the village of Ashwa, southwest of Mosul and under the control of 50 to 80 ISIS fighters at the time, learned that Iraqi and coalition forces were approaching the village. Residents said that several families set up a cluster of 10 tents three kilometers from the village as a place to flee to avoid any fighting. Around December 6, several families moved out to the tents. On December 10, ISIS fighters told the villagers that they would provide food and water that afternoon, but none the following days.

Given the warning, Musa Ibrahim, 18; his brother Sabah, 17; their cousin Salah Ali, 22; and a friend, Shakir, drove a pickup truck into the village, filled a water tank, and returned to the tent area. While Shakir stayed in the truck, the other three got out to fill the communal tank.

Another Ibrahim brother, Ahmed Ibrahim, 14, was tending sheep near the water tank when the truck pulled up. He said:

The guys got out of the car and Shakir, pulled over and parked. Just as he turned off the engine, I heard this loud blast, then I blacked out.

Ahmed had minor back injuries.

Nouri, Salah’s brother, was in a nearby tent:

I heard the whiz of a rocket, then a loud explosion. I had no idea what had been targeted but I ran out of my tent and saw Shakir’s pickup on fire. I ran over to the pickup and saw my brother Salah on the ground, his chest was open and he was covered in wounds and blood. He was already dead.

The six witnesses said that they rushed to the scene after the attack. Musa had wounds to his hand and back, and Sabah’s left leg was injured. Villagers transported them to the village, and the next morning to a hospital in territory still under ISIS control. Eight more of the Ibrahim brothers’ relatives, seven of them children, who were in a tent near the water tank, had minor injuries. Shakir was remarkably uninjured in the attack. The witnesses said that no ISIS fighters were wounded in the attack, and none were nearby at the time.

Ahmed said that for several days before the attack, he had seen an airplane flying over the area, and that he saw it 30 minutes before the strike. An Operation Inherent Resolve news release on coalition airstrikes in Iraq on December 10 stated that it carried out an airstrike near Tal Afar, which would encompass the area with the tents. The news release said that the strike “destroyed an ISIL [ISIS] armored vehicle.” Human Rights Watch was unable to determine whether this strike was the one in question.

Villagers said that the morning after the attack, after the burial of Salah Ali in Ashwa, ISIS fighters told everyone to leave the village for their own safety. The families who had set up tents returned to them for two nights, before ISIS fighters left and fighters belonging to the League of the Righteous (Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq) and the Ali al-Akbar Brigade (Lua Ali al-Akbar) took control of the area. Both groups are members of the Popular Mobilization Forces, armed forces under the direct command of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The families then headed to a displaced persons camp to the south.

The Ibrahim family said that Musa and Sabah contacted them in mid-January to confirm that they can now walk, but that they remained in an area under ISIS control.

“To prevent the kind of unlawful deadly attacks on civilians such as the one near Ashwa, attacking forces need to identify a military target before they strike,” Fakih said.

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