(Erbil) – Procedural changes for authorizing airstrikes in Iraq raise concerns about the protection of civilians, especially following airstrikes in Mosul on March 17, 2017, that allegedly caused dozens of civilian deaths, Human Rights Watch said today. The United States-led coalition fighting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Iraq should make public the detailed findings of its investigations into the attack. The coalition should ensure that serious violations of the laws of war are appropriately referred for criminal prosecution and that civilian victims or their families receive adequate redress. Previous coalition investigations have not released detailed information on their process, findings, or any disciplinary or compensatory measures taken.
On March 25, international media outlets reported that coalition airstrikes on the New Mosul neighborhood of west Mosul killed up to 200 people. The press desk of the US-led coalition, the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, confirmed that the coalition had “struck ISIS fighters and equipment,” in the area on March 17 and said that it had opened a formal investigation. However, on March 26 the Iraqi army denied that the coalition was responsible for the civilian casualties, claiming that they resulted from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) laid by ISIS. It did not release any footage or imagery from the site.
“The coalition should thoroughly and transparently investigate the dozens of civilian deaths, and in the case of wrongdoing, hold those responsible to account,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The high number of civilian deaths in recent fighting, as well as recent announcements about changed procedures for vetting airstrikes, raise concerns about the way the battle for west Mosul is being fought.”
In December 2016, the US-led coalition spokesperson, Air Force Col. John Dorrian, confirmed to the media that a US directive that month had reduced the number of steps required for some coalition troops to authorize and clear coalition airstrikes. He stated that the principal change removed the requirement for the coalition’s “strike cell” in Baghdad to clear individual strikes.
Human Rights Watch interviewed three civilians who had been in the vicinity of the March 17 attack at the time, two of whom were wounded in the attack. A person who was in the attacked homes until two days before the attack said by phone that on March 9, ISIS fighters told him and at least 45 families living in a four-block area in New Mosul to leave the area without providing a reason. His and his brother’s families moved to a very large, three-story home of a friend, about 200 meters away. By March 15, about 140 people had arrived at the house, he said, with many families staying in the basement’s two rooms, each about 4 by 5 meters.
Because the home was overcrowded, he moved his family that day, to another friend’s house in the neighborhood. Up until that point, he had not seen anything to suggest that ISIS had booby-trapped the large home, but he saw that ISIS fighters had broken holes between the walls of this and neighboring homes and were using them to move between buildings.
He said he heard heavy explosions from March 15 to 22 and did not go outside. He remembers hearing a particularly large explosion at about 8:30 a.m. on March 17, as well as aircraft overhead. On March 23, he went to the large home to check on his brother’s family, and found the home had been completely destroyed. Neighbors who said they witnessed the strike told him that a munition had destroyed it on the morning of March 17. Another house next door had been destroyed, and a third had been damaged.
For the next five days, he helped rescue workers pull bodies from the rubble of the large house, and on March 25, found his brother’s body. He said that he and rescue workers pulled at least 100 bodies from the rubble, and that relatives had come to the area looking for another 37 people whom they had not yet found. He said they had pulled out only one survivor, a local resident who was being treated in Erbil.
Human Rights Watch interviewed the survivor in Erbil on March 28. He said that on March 17, at approximately 8:15 a.m., he saw one ISIS fighter passing through the building, and that the building was then struck, he believed from the air. The owner of a smaller home damaged in the attack told Human Rights Watch that at about 9 p.m. on March 16, an ISIS fighter told him and the owner of the big home next door that everyone should evacuate the building and go deeper into ISIS territory before morning. The people inside the home were preparing to evacuate in the morning when, he said, there was a big explosion, wounding him and killing four family members.
Coalition investigators had not contacted any of these individuals at the time Human Rights Watch spoke to them.
A commander with the Iraq Counter Terrorism Service told Human Rights Watch on March 26 that he had inspected the site where “the massacre took place.” He said there were signs of TNT and other explosives at the site, and that the damage was not consistent with an airstrike, but instead an internal explosion.
Human Rights Watch attempted to visit New Mosul to investigate the allegations on March 26 but Counter Terrorism Service personnel denied access to the area, saying they were under orders from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi not to grant access to journalists or nongovernmental organizations. Several journalists gained access to the site earlier that day, but told Human Rights Watch that armed forces told them to leave within 30 minutes and prevented them from filming. One municipal councilwoman told Human Rights Watch on March 27 that she was also denied access to the area.
In the case of US strikes, US forces, including those under US Central Command, routinely investigate civilian casualties caused by US forces following a credibility assessment under US Army Regulation (AR) 15-6. Central Command oversees the US-led coalition.
The coalition should ensure that it makes public the findings of its investigations into attacks causing civilian casualties and, if it finds serious violations of the laws of war, should refer those responsible for appropriate criminal prosecution. The findings should include information on accountability measures taken, with explanations, and the redress provided to victims or their families. In the past, Central Command investigations under AR 15-6 into civilian casualties have not provided this information, nor has recent coalition reporting on investigations. The investigation should not rely solely on internal, assessments from air forces involved, which may underreport civilian casualties, but seek direct testimony from survivors, Human Rights Watch said.