ERBIL and MOSUL, Iraq — They had been locked in the house for days waiting for Iraqi soldiers to arrive when they heard a great shudder, and suddenly the room on the second floor of their house was torn apart by an air strike. The 20-month-old son of Fadal Abdal Khadar died instantly, hit by bomb shrapnel dropped by an American jet. His young mother's head and leg were injured.
As the Iraqi army launched its campaign to free western Mosul from Daesh forces on February, tens of thousands were trapped there. By April, 400,000 people had been displaced from western Mosul. By the time Mosul finally fell, some 750,000 had been displaced and tens of thousands of people were still trapped there, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Western Mosul was the birthplace of Daesh. It was here that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi announced the group's creation in a speech in the local Al Nouri Mosque in June three summers ago. It was likewise the last bastion of the terror group in the country. Baghdadi has reportedly been killed, although there are recent conflicting reports that he may still be alive.
Most of its inhabitants, however, were simple civilians, terrorised firstly by Daesh and then by the campaign to rid the city of them.
"On television, the Iraqi government kept calling on us not to leave for days, saying that the Iraqi army would arrive soon," Fadel, 21, a resident of Mosul's Al Jadida district told TRT World.
As he spoke, his little daughter, who survived a strike on March 12 (she was in the house beside the one which got destroyed by the air strike) pushed mosquitos away from the open scabs on her grandmother's right leg. They were sitting in a small tent — 15 metres squared — packed with some 20 people. It's one of many in the Hamman Ali refugee camp, 25 kilometres south of Mosul. More than 24,000 people had escaped to this particular camp since the start of the offensive to retake western Mosul from Daesh. Now they are waiting for the conflict to end so they can return home, assuming their houses are still standing.
The narrow and tangled streets of western Mosul prevented the Iraqi troops from making a rapid advance by ground. Instead, American air forces paved — or rather, bombed — the way for them by carrying out a massive air strike campaign.
"They bombed all day, every day," Fadel said.
On March 12 the Iraqi army was advancing northward from Tall Al Rumman, to the southwest of Mosul, into Mosul's Al Jadida. A coalition fighter jet carried out several air strikes, hitting the house next door to Fadel's family house and killing a total of 30 civilians in the Mosul Al Jadida area, according to the survivors. Like many of the air strikes during this period, the deaths were never acknowledged by the US coalition.
"We were locked in the house so I don't know if there were Daesh fighters in the neighbourhood. For sure, there was a car parked right in front of our house the day before," said Fadel, who was a fruit vendor in the neighbourhood. The Iraqi soldiers arrived 24 hours later, but only to remove the corpses. They refused to provide relief to the wounded still lying amidst the rubble.
"I was only able to take my mother to the Al Jamhuri hospital after several days [the hospital was under Daesh control at the time, but locals had no other way to seek treatment], where she underwent three surgeries on her head. Then we came here," the man recalled.
As he cradled his three-year-old son in front of Fadel's tent, Mohamed moved closer.
"Since the beginning of the offensive on western Mosul, Daesh fighters placed vehicles full of explosives in all the area," he said. "At first we thought they were for suicide attacks to be launched on the Iraqi army, but we didn't really understand why they would be abandoned for days. Then we realised that they were left there only to increase the explosive power of the American air strikes."
When the American air strikes struck the booby traps and cars packed with explosives littered across western Mosul, they caused even larger explosions. Daesh ensured that the air strikes caused even further civilian casualties than they would have.
While all the other previous battles to recapture Daesh-held Iraqi cities including Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah and eastern Mosul lasted little over a month, the fight for western Mosul lasted for over five months.
The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi announced the liberation of western Mosul in early July. Iraqi forces hoisted the national flag soon the banks of the Tigris River once again. Since then the Iraqi soldiers have been searching the area to catch the last Daesh fighters. Bodies of terrorists recently executed are scattered all around western Mosul marking the final stage of the war. Only some shootouts are still heard from the areas along the Tigris where Iraqi soldiers chase the last dozens of Daesh combatants trying to flee.
While hundreds of men are held in the outskirts of Mosul for the identification as the local authorities are due to screen and spot Daesh terrorists hidden in the displaced civilians' flow.
In the battle over western Mosul came under siege, Daesh fighters replicated many of the same defensive guerrilla tactics used in previous battlefields across Iraq, such as Vehicle-Born Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs), using mostly large armoured trucks, armed commercial drones and rockets.
They also developed new guerrilla-style techniques, taking advantage of the dense urban lay of the battlefield, Ludovico Carlino, the Senior Analyst on Middle East and North Africa for the analyst group IHS Market, explained to TRT World.
"They developed new techniques as improvised armour installed inside the skin of the vehicle, and modified [Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices] to fire up to five rocket-propelled grenades while moving toward their intended target, increasing the effectiveness of such attacks in dense urban areas," he said.
The biggest innovation by the group during the battle for western Mosul was its aerial attacks using commercial drones. It began using drones against the Iraqi army in January 2017 and they became one of Daesh's most feared methods of attack in the fighting.
Amplifying air strike casualties
Hannus Ibrahim suffered multiple back fractures. He was barely able to speak from his bed at the Emergency Hospital in western Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Iraqi-Kurdish region, 80 kilometres east of Mosul.
"On either March 12th or 13th, a car bomb had just been detected in the Hay Amal district, in western Mosul, where I lived," he says, speaking slowly and struggling to recall the precise date. "We heard a dull sound and several houses were suddenly reduced to rubble. They [those who dropped the bomb] were Americans."
"About 28 people died that day," he said, citing the number recorded by local rescuers.
Airwars, a journalist-led online platform which tracks and monitors the international air war against Daesh, reported on an American coalition air strike that day, without mentioning any victims.
The independent website Iraq Body Count, which has been collecting data on civilian deaths in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003, also reported that 25 civilians were killed by airstrikes in Mosul on March 13, which appears to confirm the incident Ibrahim recounted to TRT World.
"Before the start of Iraqi military offensive, the air strikes were very accurate. I've seen a jet hit a man while riding a bike. Now they hit much more randomly. Perhaps because Daesh is hiding all around and filling the streets with explosives on purpose."
One of the worst single attacks in Iraq since 2003 invasion
Since the beginning of the offensive in the northwestern region of Nineveh, many families fled from Mosul, the capital of Nineveh and the second largest city in the country. Hannus, originally from Sinjar since October last year, had relocated to relatives in Mosul's Al Jadida district.
Hedged in, these civilians had nowhere left to go, and were urged by Iraqi officials to stay put.
"Even though on television, they were still repeating that we would have to stay in our houses and wait for the soldiers to arrive. Like many families, we moved from one house to another," Abdallah Khalil Ibrahim explained.
Following the advice did not keep him safe. Suffering burns on 60 percent of his skin, Ibrahim, 47 years old, is almost entirely wrapped in white bandages following an air strike carried out by the coalition forces on western Mosul on March 17.
"At the time of the attack, the house was packed with 105 people," the man said.
"There were dozens of us at Abu Tawfiq's place; my neighbour in Mosul's Al Jadida. It was a three-storey building, and we felt safe there as no Daesh sniper had taken up a position on the roof of that house," Abdallah explained from his bed at Emergency West Erbil Hospital.
A coalition fighter aircraft hit a Daesh location near Abu Tawfiq's house, four people died right beside Abdallah, crushed by the partial collapse of the building. Another building a few metres away was hit also by the air strike, killing at least 105 (possibly as many as 141) civilians who had sought refuge there.
The Pentagon has admitted those deaths, reporting that on March 17 a US jet dropped a 500 lb bomb shortly after 8:00 am, targeting two Daesh fighters in the Al Jadida district. Beyond striking the fighters, however, it caused a huge blast that levelled the house and damaged the neighbouring ones.
"ISIS emplaced a large amount of explosive material in the rear of the residence for the purpose of killing civilians," said Brigadier-General Matthew Isler, speaking at a briefing on the department's investigation into the incident. "ISIS emplaced a sniper position in the rear of the building next to the explosives and attacked CTS to draw fire onto a structure they knew contained a large number of civilians."
The commander of the ISF's Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), Major General Abdul Ghani al Asadi, told TRT World that defeating Daesh in the dense urban terrain was extremely challenging.
"It's complicated to defeat the enemy in a battlefield where tens of thousands of civilians are still trapped, especially when the enemy uses them as human shields," he said.
"Even when we are not sure if there's a car bomb, we give the green light to the Americans for an air strike because we can not risk losing our men [by sending in ground forces]. And unfortunately, the number of civilian casualties rises."
According to Airwars, since the US-backed Iraqi army offensive against Deash in Mosul started, some 2,441 air strikes were carried out. The civilian death toll is estimated to be in the thousands. The bombing on March 17 was the deadliest single attack recorded, but 4,000 bodies are estimated to still be lying under the rubble. Some 80 percent of western Mosul was destroyed.
"Daesh forced us to keep our doors open, to let them through in case of attack from Iraqi troops on the ground. And whenever we saw them inside our crowded shelter, we shivered because we know that they would go to the roof and we would be struck," Ibrahim said, still recovering from the burn injuries that will scar him for the rest of his life.
Neither is it over for any of the other traumatised inhabitants of western Mosul. The next step will be digging through the rubble of their destroyed homes and schools, and burying their dead.