MOSUL – Little has changed at the scene of the al-Jadida airstrike that killed more than 100 civilians more than two months ago and ratcheted up pressure on the U.S.-led coalition to address allegations of mounting civilian casualties in the fight against the Islamic State group.
While bulldozers have cleared the main street of debris so vehicles and pedestrians can pass, the houses destroyed by the fierce clashes to “liberate” the neighborhood remain reduced to mounds of rubble.
Initially, residents say they were inundated with journalists and Iraqi government officials, but within a week the neighborhood was “abandoned,” said Ali Idriss, 30, whose home is within eyesight of the house hit by the U.S. bomb on March 17.
Idriss said the Pentagon investigation released Thursday that acknowledged 105 civilians were killed in the airstrike is relatively insignificant.
“It’s important to hear the Americans apologize,” he said, “but justice would be the government giving the people of this neighborhood money to rebuild their homes.” From where he stood at least five completely destroyed homes were visible.
The Pentagon report concluded that the 500 pound bomb dropped on a house to kill two I.S. snipers should not have destroyed the entire structure. The report said secondary explosions caused by explosives set by I.S. fighters inside the al-Jadida house killed the civilians sheltering there.
The report added that another 36 civilians may have been at the building at the time, but “there is insufficient evidence to determine their status or whereabouts.”
Poor weather conditions during the days leading up to March 17 made coalition aerial surveillance of the neighborhood impossible for the two days before the bomb was dropped, Col. Joseph Scrocca, a coalition spokesman said, adding that coalition surveillance was also unavailable on the day of the strike due to fog.
Two Iraqi officers who oversaw the operation that day said special forces soldiers on the ground instead visually confirmed the presence of I.S. fighters in the house and reported that no civilians were observed. The officers spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The Pentagon report concluded the U.S. coalition member who approved the strike did so “in accordance with all provisions of the applicable (rules of engagement) and Law of Armed Conflict.”
But several residents of the al-Jadida neighborhood told The Associated Press on Friday there were no I.S. fighters or explosives inside the house struck by the U.S. bomb.
“A sniper wanted to get on top of the house. He got up and then immediately came down,” said Manhal Samir, who was in a house next door at the time. “Within minutes” of the fighter leaving the strike hit, Samir said.
“There were no explosives in the house, only families,” said Ahmed Abdul Karim, who was sheltering in his own home nearby and whose brother was killed in the U.S. strike. “There were children in the basement and in the garden is where the women were.”
The Nineveh provincial council is also calling on the U.S. and the international community to compensate the victims of the strike by rebuilding their homes, according to Nuraddin Qablan, the council’s deputy president.
In the past the coalition has dispensed “sympathy payments” to victims and relatives of coalition strikes, but no such payments have been made with regard to the March 17 airstrike, according to Scrocca, the coalition spokesman.
Al-Jadida was one of the hardest hit Mosul neighborhoods during the first weeks of the operation to retake the city’s west.
“It wasn’t only this house where civilians died,” said Hamed Salah, approaching the building struck by the U.S. bomb. “In that house over there, more than 30 were killed and another family up there,” he said pointing down one street and up another.
Civil protection rescue teams reported recovering more than 200 bodies from the area in the days following the March 17 strike.
On March 17 alone, the coalition dropped 81 bombs in western Mosul, including 12 on al-Jadida neighborhood, an area just about two square kilometers in size, according to Scrocca.
But the Pentagon investigation focused solely on the airstrike that hit at 8:24 a.m. local time.
A team of 18 people worked on the investigation, interviewing civilians, two human rights groups and at least seven media outlets. During the two month investigation coalition members visited the scene of the strike three times where they took measurements, photos and gathered soil samples, Scrocca said.
The March 17 airstrike brings the total number of civilians confirmed killed by the Pentagon in the fight against I.S. to 457. Independent monitoring groups say the total number of civilians killed is much higher, estimating thousands have been killed in Iraq and Syria since 2014, according to tallies by Iraq Body Count and Airwars.
The Mosul operation, launched in October, has been the largest and most difficult fight against I.S. since the extremists overran nearly a third of the country in 2014.
While just a few small neighborhoods around western Mosul’s old city remain under I.S. control, coalition and Iraqi commanders have warned the most difficult battles may lie ahead as the city’s older districts are a densely populated warren of narrow streets and closely packed houses.
The March 17 bombing is the largest single instance of civilian deaths confirmed by the coalition in the nearly three-year-old campaign against I.S. and Scrocca said he can’t think of another Pentagon investigation into civilian casualties in the I.S. fight as complex as the one released Thursday.
“This weighs heavily on all of us,” Scrocca said of the coalition’s work confirming allegations of civilian deaths. “It doesn’t do any good to liberate a city if there’s nobody left to live in it.”