Civilian protection has been a consistent challenge in the ongoing battle to retake portions of Iraq from the Islamic State (IS). According to the UN Assistance Mission of Iraq there were 2,814 civilians killed and 3,909 injured in Iraq between October 2016 and January 2017. Although most of the casualties were attributable to the IS’s indiscriminate attacks, Iraq Security Forces (ISF)’ crossfire and international coalition airstrikes have also caused considerable harm and destruction.
This policy brief details the threats faced by civilians in Mosul and assesses the challenges of protecting them from the IS campaign of destruction, on the one hand, and Iraqi forces’ and coalition forces’ campaign to defeat the IS, on the other. In addition, the briefing considers questions regarding the stabilization of Iraq after the defeat of the IS.
IS in Mosul
As fighting between the Iraqi forces and the IS spread to Mosul, ISIS members indiscriminately attacked civilians. Residents of eastern Mosul revealed CIVIC that, as Iraqi forces advanced, most families were locked in their homes and feared going outside and being shot by snipers. At the same time, civilians worried that ISIS fighters would position themselves inside houses or on residential rooftops and their homes would become targets of the ISF and the international coalition’s attacks.
Pro-government Forces in Mosul
During the retake of eastern Mosul, the ISF used artillery, mortars, attack helicopters, as well as Iraqi-piloted F-16s. Heavy weapons were not allowed when civilians were present, but personnel admitted that distinguishing civilians from ISIS fighters was difficult. While it appears that the ISF were taking precautions to protect civilians in the conduct of military operations, it’s unclear how many civilians have been injured or killed as there is no comprehensive tracking of such harm.
With regards to the operations of the US-led international coalition, there are serious concerns over the extent of civilian harm caused by the use of airstrikes in populated areas. The Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve tracks and investigates allegations of civilian harm. Studies, however, have found that aerial battle damage assessments often undercount such harm.
The Government of Iraq maintains a responsibility to proactively protect its population from the IS’s threats. As eastern Mosul is now patrolled by a mix of army units, militia groups, and federal and local police, there are concerns about different mandates and training, and their impact on civilian protection. Members of the global coalition against the IS should continue to support the training of local forces in protection and harm-mitigating techniques and assist the police in engaging communities and use appropriate force to patrol and secure areas. The government of Iraq, on its part, needs to ensure that (a) the myriad of armed actors behave professionally and don’t engage in revenge attacks, and (b) only armed groups formally under the Ministry of Defence or Ministry of Interior or Commander of the Armed Forces of Iraq provide security. Finally, the briefing considers that monetary payments for conflict victims and livelihood programs need to be (re)implemented. Specifically, the implementation of 2009 Iraqi compensation law for conflict victims who suffered deaths of loved ones, injuries and property damages should be renewed.