Daesh has been eliminated, but at the price of extensive civilian and architectural damage. Iraq’s Civil Defence is working day and night to find all the bodies. And there are questions over why destructive Grad rockets were used in urban areas.
MOSUL, Iraq — Inside the Old City of western Mosul, at a bend in a narrow street, an Iraqi Civil Defence member in a flak jacket and helmet uses an excavator machine to pull away at layers of concrete — all that’s left of a home hit by an air strike.
The reinforced concrete is too heavy for the machine, and eventually the motor overheats, sending it limping down the alley for repairs. Other Civil Defence members sit in the shade of another wrecked building across the street, and an Iraqi army Humvee roars past.
Bashar Dhannoun, 42, watches the excavation with an empty expression of shock.
Recounting the scene from June, Dhannoun said, “Daesh militants were behind my house, calling each other on walkie-talkies. They fled, and minutes later a plane struck my house. Two missiles hit us.”
There were two families in the house, Dhannoun said. His wife, brother, and ten-year-old son were killed. He lost his sight in one eye. At the time, he claims, there was no fighting around his house. The area was still under control of the militant group Daesh.
After nine months of fighting to retake Iraq’s second largest city from Daesh control, much of its western half lies in rubble. While Iraq’s leaders proclaimed the end of the Daesh caliphate when the last militants were cornered, the civilian deaths, as well as the destruction of the city’s unique heritage, are immense. Despite the great cost, Iraqi authorities are doing little, it seems, to give a clear picture of lives lost and structures destroyed.
Nicolette Waldman, head Iraq researcher at Amnesty International, said that while the destruction in western Mosul and the loss of life are immense, it was so chaotic that it’s almost impossible to know exact figures. Referring to Amnesty’s latest report on Mosul, titled At Any Cost: The Civilian Catastrophe in West Mosul, Iraq, Waldman said, “It’s incredibly difficult to know the numbers killed. We just put indicators of the scale. Just the 45 attacks alone that we documented killed 425 civilians.”
“But the numbers are far more than have been acknowledged by the Iraqi authorities,” she said in an interview with TRT World.
According to Waldman, while part of the destruction wrought by the fighting can be blamed on Daesh’s well-publicised methods of car bombing, denial of food and medicine to civilians, and booby-trapping their houses and streets with explosives, Iraqi forces caused tremendous loss by ignoring realities on the ground.
Noting the use of ground-fired “Grad” rockets by Iraqi forces in western Mosul, an inaccurate and highly destructive weapon, Waldman said the kinds of munitions used were totally inappropriate for the kind of close urban combat carried out in Mosul.
The Amnesty report noted that Grads are designed to flood an area with many rockets. “By design,” the report says, “‘Grads’ are indiscriminate weapons.”
“The coalition was using bombs that were far too powerful for that situation,” said Waldman. “They should never have been used in these areas.”
Further, Waldman said, the loss of so many Iraqi forces in earlier battles led them to rely on troops poorly suited for fighting with so many civilians in the crossfire.
“In eastern Mosul, there was a great loss of fighting men. Perhaps as high as 50 to 70 percent. So to fill the gap [in western Mosul] they brought in the Federal Police and the Emergency Response Division.”
Federal Police members underwent a meagre two to six weeks of pre-deployment training. The Emergency Response Division, moreover, has been found guilty of committing abuses of suspected Daesh members like extrajudicial killings and torture.
Lieutenant Colonel Rabi’ Ibrahim Hasan, who administers western Mosul’s Civil Defence, said his men are the only ones in the city doing the work of exhuming bodies from under the rubble of destroyed buildings. And this despite not receiving salaries since Daesh took over three years ago.
“We have been going on daily missions to recover bodies for the last six months without rest. Our heavy machines often can’t enter the Old City. So we are working with our hands, shovels, picks. We sometimes stay on one site between four and six days.”
He believes some 400 to 500 bodies remain inside the rubble of western Mosul’s Old City, noting that his team had recovered 15 bodies on the day TRT World spoke with him by phone in mid-August, and 45 the day before.
Ghanim Jalil Younis, a staff director who works in the office of the Nineveh governor, said that the lion’s share of the civilian deaths in western Mosul go to Daesh militants, who he said killed civilians at will in great numbers.
“Some days Daesh killed 100, 200, or 300 civilians,” he told TRT World in a tone of exasperation.
Younis claims there were 5,000 civilian deaths in the fight for western Mosul. When asked how the governor’s office came to such a number, Younis said that the estimates were drawn from court appointments.
Mosulites who have lost family members, he said, create files at the Mosul court in order to receive death certificates for lost loved ones. Younis said the death certificates aid Iraqi armed forces in investigating civilians, helping them know who is who, and also in receiving compensation from the authorities.
Yet Dhannoun, the air strike survivor from Mosul’s Old City, doesn’t believe he can get compensation for his loss so easily.
While he says he gathered photos of his destroyed home, documents of his residency and ownership of the house, two witnesses and identity documentation, which he delivered to a special court in eastern Mosul, the numbers of cases are just too many to effectively handle.
If anything comes, he said, “I don’t expect it for five or six months. There are so many cases like mine. Go to the court yourself and see how many there are like me.”
“They’ll give it to me, or not,” he said. “I just don’t know.”
His tone was slightly defeated and fatalistic.
“Of course I’m pessimistic. The government planes dropped two missiles on my house. All the Old [City’s] homes are destroyed. And now they must give me compensation?”
While it was very likely non-Iraqi coalition aircraft that made the strike, they are in tight alliance with Iraqi forces.
It’s not only the tremendous loss of life in Mosul that is going unmeasured by local authorities, but the rich cultural heritage of the city too, said Karel Novacek, a professor of archeology at Palacky University in the Czech Republic. Novacek works with a project called Monuments of Mosul in Danger, which has tracked the historical and architectural wonders of the city destroyed by the Daesh occupation and the fight to oust them.
He noted Mosul’s famous Al Nuri mosque, “Made most striking by the leaning minaret of Al Hadbaa. It had a high symbolic value to the region. And imagine: it survived the fighting of the last three years only to be destroyed in the last days of liberation operations. It’s the saddest example.”
Some important structures were spared, he said. “The Saint Thomas church [in western Mosul’s Old City] is still standing, though it was looted and damaged inside.”
And while measures were taken to preserve some historical sites, Novacek said, destruction was almost inevitable in such intense fighting.
“The [anti-Daesh] coalition tried to avoid hitting the most important buildings with airstrikes. But they were eventually destroyed by street fighting.”
What made the city’s architecture so unique, Novacek said, is the blend of influences from different religious and ethnic groups living side by side for many centuries, particularly the Christians and Shia.
“Other such melting pots did not exist in other large cities of the Near East,” Novacek said.