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'Hollow victory': More than 9,000 deaths in Iraq's battle for Mosul

Thousands of civilians in Mosul were killed in the city's battle of liberation [Sacha Myers/MSF]

Date of publication: 20 December, 2017

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Civilians in Mosul have died in ever growing numbers at the hands of their liberators during the operation to defeat the Islamic State group.
The price Mosul's residents paid in blood to see their city freed was between 9,000 and 11,000 dead, a civilian casualty rate nearly 10 times higher than what has been previously reported. 

The number killed in the nine-month battle to liberate the city from the Islamic State (IS) marauders has not been acknowledged by the US-led coalition, the Iraqi government or the self-styled caliphate.

But Mosul's gravediggers, its morgue workers and the volunteers who retrieve bodies from the city's rubble are keeping count.

Iraqi or coalition forces are responsible for at least 3,200 civilian deaths from airstrikes, artillery fire or mortar rounds between October 2016 and the fall of the Islamic State group in July 2017, according to an AP investigation that cross-referenced independent databases from non-governmental organisations.

Most of those victims are simply described as "crushed" in health ministry reports.

Mosul's gravediggers, its morgue workers and the volunteers who retrieve bodies from the city's rubble are keeping count

The coalition, which says it lacks the resources to send investigators into Mosul, acknowledges responsibility for only 326 of the deaths.

"It was the biggest assault on a city in a couple of generations, all told. And thousands died," said Chris Woods, head of Airwars, an independent organisation that documents air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria

"There doesn't seem to be any disagreement about that, except from the federal government and the coalition. And understanding how those civilians died, and obviously IS played a big part in that as well, could help save a lot of lives the next time something like this has to happen. And the disinterest in any sort of investigation is very disheartening," Woods added.

Of the nearly 10,000 deaths the AP found using its own research and a database provided by Airwars, around a third of the casualties died in bombardments by the US-led coalition or Iraqi forces.

Another third of the dead were killed in the IS group's final frenzy of violence. And it could not be determined which side was responsible for the deaths of the remainder, who were cowering in neighbourhoods battered by airstrikes, IS explosives and mortar rounds from all sides.

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But the morgue total would be many times higher than official tolls. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi told AP that 1,260 civilians were killed in the fighting. The US-led coalition has not offered an overall figure. The coalition relies on drone footage, video from cameras mounted on weapons systems and pilot observations. Its investigators have neither visited the morgue nor requested its data.

What is clear from the tallies is that as coalition and Iraqi government forces increased their pace, civilians were dying in ever higher numbers at the hands of their liberators: from 20 the week the operation began in mid-October 2016 to 303 in a single week at the end of June 2017, according to the AP tally.

‘Now I carve stones for entire families’

Abdel-Hafiz Mohammed, who kept his job as undertaker throughout the militants' rule, has carved approximately 2,000 headstones for the al-Jadidah graveyard alone since October 2016, the month the battle began.

After the city fell to IS in 2014, undertakers like him handled the victims of beheading and stoning; there were men accused of homosexuality who had been flung from rooftops. But once the operation to free the city started, the scope of Mohammed's work changed yet again.

"Now I carve stones for entire families," Mohammed said, gesturing to a stack of four headstones, all bearing the same name. "It's a single family, all killed in an airstrike," he said.

Mosul was home to more than a million civilians before the fight to retake it from IS. Fearing a massive humanitarian crisis, the Iraqi government dropped leaflets or had soldiers tell families to stay put as the final battle loomed in late 2016.

Mosul was home to more than a million civilians before the fight to retake it from IS. Fearing a massive humanitarian crisis, the Iraqi government dropped leaflets or had soldiers tell families to stay put as the final battle loomed in late 2016

Thousands were trapped as the front line enveloped densely populated neighbourhoods.

Blast injuries, gunshot wounds and shrapnel wounds killed thousands as the Mosul operation ground westward, according to morgue documents.

When Iraqi forces became bogged down in late December, the Pentagon adjusted the rules regarding the use of airpower, allowing airstrikes to be called in by more ground commanders with less chain-of-command oversight.

At the same time, IS fighters took thousands of civilians with them in their retreat west. They packed hundreds of families into schools and government buildings, sometimes shunting civilians through tunnels from one fighting position to another.

They expected the tactic would dissuade airstrikes and artillery. They were wrong.

As the fight punched into western Mosul, the morgue logs filled with civilians increasingly killed by being "blown to pieces."

Most of the civilians killed in west Mosul died under the weight of collapsed buildings, hit by airstrikes, mortars, artillery shells or IS-laid explosives. The morgue provided lists of names of civilians and place of death. Names often included entire families.

The coalition has defended its operational choices, saying it was IS that put civilians in danger as it clung to power.

Sometimes you can see the bodies, they're visible under the rubble, other times we dig for hours and suddenly find 15 to 30 all in one place. That's when you know they were sheltering, hiding from the airstrikes

Blooded liberation and hollow victory

Imad Ibrahim, a civil defence rescuer from west Mosul, survived the battle to retake the city and is now tasked with excavating the dead. He mostly works in the Old City, where on a recent day the streets still reeked of rotting flesh.

"Sometimes you can see the bodies, they're visible under the rubble, other times we dig for hours and suddenly find 15 to 30 all in one place. That's when you know they were sheltering, hiding from the airstrikes," Ibrahim said.

Behind him an excavator dug through jagged cement blocks, searching for the body of a woman who was hiding in her home when it was hit by an airstrike.

Ibrahim said he spent years waiting for liberation, but that the victory  itself was hollow.

"Honestly, none of this was worth it."

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