A recent spike in civilian casualties in Mosul suggests the U.S.-led coalition is not taking adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths as it battles the Islamic State group (I.S.) militants alongside Iraqi ground forces, Amnesty International said on Tuesday.
The human rights group’s report follows acknowledgement from the coalition that the U.S. military was behind a March 17 strike in a western Mosul neighborhood that residents have said killed more than a hundred civilians.
U.S. officials did not confirm there were civilian casualties but opened an investigation.
Amnesty’s report also cites a second strike on Saturday that it said killed “up to 150 people.” The U.S.-led coalition said in a statement that it was investigating multiple strikes in western Mosul that allegedly resulted in civilian deaths.
Evidence gathered on the ground in Mosul “points to an alarming pattern of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside,” the report stated.
It said any failure to take precautions to prevent civilian casualties would be “in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.”
In Baghdad, visiting U.S. army chief of staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, said on Monday that what caused the explosion was still unknown and added that “some degree of certainty will be known in the coming days following the investigation.”
“It is very possible that Daesh blew up that building to blame it on the collation in order to cause a delay in the offensive into Mosul and cause a delay in the use of collation airstrikes, that is very possible,” Milley told reporters after meetings at the Iraqi Defense Ministry.
Daesh is an Arabic language acronym for I.S.
“And it is possible the collation airstrike did it,” he added.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva, the spokesman of the U.N. human rights office called on the international coalition fighting in Iraq to work to “minimize the impact” on civilians. Rupert Colville said I.S. militants are brazenly employing human shields, urging the coalition forces to “avoid this trap.”
Colville added that the rights office has tallied the deaths of at least 307 people between Feb. 17 and March 22, including 140 from a single March 17 airstrike incident on a house in al-Jadida neighborhood on March 17.
Iraqi forces began the assault on I.S.-held Mosul in October, after months of preparation and buildup. In January, Iraq declared the eastern half of Mosul — the Tigris River divides the city into an eastern and western sector — “fully liberated.” Iraqi government forces are now battling to retake the city’s western half.
Civilians, humanitarian groups and monitoring officials have repeatedly warned of the possibility of increased civilian casualties in western Mosul due to the higher density of the population there and the increased reliance on airstrikes and artillery. Faced with their toughest fight against I.S. yet, Iraqi and coalition forces have increasingly turned to airstrikes and artillery to clear and hold territory in Mosul’s west.
Unlike its previous battles against I.S. in urban settings in Iraq, the government made the decision to instruct Mosul civilians to remain in their homes. In the battles for Fallujah and Ramadi, those cities were entirely emptied of their civilian population while Iraqi forces fought to push out I.S. In Mosul, the Iraqi government said it asked civilians to remain in place to prevent large-scale displacement.
When the operation to retake Mosul was launched, more than a million people were estimated to still be living in the city, Iraq’s second-largest. Today, the United Nations estimates about 400,000 people remain trapped in I.S.-held neighborhoods in western Mosul.
Amnesty International’s report quoted survivors and eyewitnesses of airstrikes that have killed civilians as saying that “they did not try to flee as the battle got underway because they received repeated instructions from the Iraqi authorities to remain in their homes.”