Civilian casualties of anti-Islamic State campaign shouldn't be downplayed

Civilian casualties of the anti-Islamic State campaign shouldn't be downplayed
5 min read
14 Mar, 2019
Comment: Downplaying the number of civilian deaths caused by coalition airstrikes taints the military victory over the Islamic State, writes Paul Iddon.
Mosul city's morgue says that more than 5,000 civilians were killed in the battle [AFP]
With the Islamic State' (IS) so-called caliphate now destroyed, it's important to have a thorough and honest evaluation of the harm the US-led coalition's air campaign caused civilians trapped inside that marauding terror state.  

Britain's Ministry of Defence (MoD) has announced that the Royal Air Force (RAF) killed or wounded precisely 4,315 IS fighters between September 2014 and January 2019. During the same period, the MoD claims, the RAF was directly responsible for the death of one single civilian.

While it's certainly true that the RAF, like most coalition air forces, frequently uses precision-guided munitions when targeting enemy forces to mitigate the harm done to surrounding civilian areas, it's unlikely, given the large-scale destruction of huge swathes of formerly IS-occupied cities, that such a low figure is plausible.

Former Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi spoke of the number of civilian casualties caused throughout the battle for Mosul this month. Speaking at the sixth annual Sulaimani Forum in Iraqi Kurdistan, the former Iraqi premier claimed that 1,400 civilians were killed throughout the battle, which included, in his words, "only eight women and children."

"They gave me numbers of civilians. Every time I asked for the number of women and children," Abadi said. "I'll give you this data … There were only eight women and children. Eight, only eight, out of 1,400."

Abadi was immediately criticized by NPR correspondent Jane Arraf who told him she saw the bodies firsthand. It's unclear if Abadi was simply misled during his time as prime minister or was consciously, and therefore blatantly, distorting reality. 

It was clear from the get-go that many civilians caught in these urban battlefields would tragically be killed

The main battle for Mosul raged between October 2016 and July 2017. The western part of the city, situated on the west bank of the Tigris River, was the most heavily damaged. The city's morgue says that more than 5,000 civilians were killed throughout the battle, an estimate far larger and more significant than Abadi's claim of 1,400.

Iraqi ground forces used heavily destructive indiscriminate weapons, such as multi-barrel BM-21 Grad rocket launchers, in densely populated parts of Mosul.

"Most types of Grad rockets are unguided and can only be targeted on an area, and are often fired in salvos by their launchers to rapidly saturate an area," noted Human Rights Watch. Use of such heavy weapons in densely populated urban areas against an enemy that has no scruple of using human shields was bound to cause significant civilian casualties.

The long and arduous battles to remove IS from both Mosul and Raqqa were essential but, nevertheless, proved quite bloody and hugely destructive for the civilian populations of both urban centres. Pretending otherwise is both counterproductive and disingenuous.

Iraqi soldiers in Mosul, 2017 witness a coalition airstrike [Getty] 

The UK-based Airwars NGO, which tracks the civilian casualties caused by the coalition throughout this campaign, reported the extent of the destruction last May to both cities.

"The Coalition's claims of precision have been called into question by non combatant death tolls in the thousands between Raqqa and Mosul - the latter the scene of the most intense urban fighting since World War II, according to US officials," the monitor reported.

"Civilian casualties from US-led strikes appear to be at their highest levels since Vietnam, and yet there is little or no official effort made to track the overall death toll from urban fighting."

Coalition member states should allocate more resources into their investigations of civilian deaths they may have directly caused

The idea that such campaign was realistically fought with civilian casualties as low as Abadi or Britain's MoD have claimed is unlikely at best, and beyond risible at worst.

Airwars also questioned the MoDs aforementioned contention that it could so accurately estimate the number of IS members RAF airstrikes killed, but only confirm conclusively that its airstrikes were responsible for a single civilian death.

The MoD, Airwars tweeted, "says it can precisely determine that it's killed 4,013 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria since 2014. This is the same MoD which says it's impossible properly to determine civilian harm from its actions, and admits only 1 civilian death."

Last September, the Pentagon estimated that 1,114 civilians were killed by coalition air and artillery strikes. It also stated that it investigates every allegation of civilian casualties that might have been caused by over 30,000 airstrikes against the Islamic State, an area which once occupied an area the same size as the United Kingdom.

Airwars for its part estimates that somewhere between approximately 7,500 and 12,000 non-combatants were killed throughout the coalition air campaign against IS. The true figure is probably somewhere in-between.

It was clear from the get-go that many civilians caught in these urban battlefields would tragically be killed.

Despite this harsh reality it was still, even in retrospect, an essential endeavour to militarily defeat that tyrannical entity as soon as possible, since that was the only way to prevent its expansion and the genocides that would doubtlessly involve, as well as its ability to plan and encourage more terrorist attacks around the world.

Downplaying the number of civilian deaths likely caused by coalition airstrikes well over a year after the two most important IS urban strongholds have been liberated taints the military victory over the Islamic State, itself a victory for humanity.

Coalition member states should, therefore, allocate more resources into their investigations of civilian deaths they may have directly caused, determine if such casualties could have been avoided, and if there was any criminal negligence or violations of the rigorous rules of engagement, and offer reparations to victims, and/or their families, wherever possible.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.