Iraq suspends Mosul offensive after coalition airstrike atrocity
Iraqi military leaders have halted their push to recapture west Mosul from Islamic State as international outrage grew over the civilian toll from airstrikes that killed at least 150 people in a single district of the city.
The attack on the Mosul Jadida neighbourhood is thought to have been one of the deadliest bombing raids for civilians since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Rescuers were still pulling bodies from the rubble on Saturday, more than a week after the bombs landed, when the US-led coalition confirmed that its aircraft had targeted Isis fighters in the area.
They carried out the attack on 17 March “at the request of the Iraqi security forces”, and have now launched a formal investigation into reports of civilian casualties, the coalition said.
British planes were among those operating in western Mosul at the time.
Asked if they could have been involved in the airstrikes, a spokesman did not rule out the possibility of British involvement, saying: “We are aware of reports [of civilian casualties] and will support the coalition investigation.”
There had been no reports of a UK role in any civilian casualties in more than two years of fighting Isis, he added.
“We have not seen evidence that we have been responsible for civilian casualties so far.
Through our rigorous targeting processes we will continue to seek to minimise the risk of civilian casualties, but that risk can never be removed entirely.”
A UK report on the 17 March fighting, which was issued just a couple of days later, described “very challenging conditions with heavy cloud”.
Tornado jets were sent to “support Iraqi troops advancing inside western Mosul” in intense urban fighting, where crews had to “engage targets perilously close to the Iraqi troops whom they were assisting”.
They used Paveway guided missiles to hit five targets.
The coalition said in a separate statement it had carried out four airstrikes aimed at “three Isis tactical units”.
They destroyed more than 50 vehicles and 25 “fighting positions”.
The deaths have intensified concerns over up to 400,000 Mosul residents who are still packed into the crowded western half of the city, as Iraqi security forces backed by foreign air power advance on Isis’s last major stronghold in the country.
Civil defence workers say they have pulled more than 140 bodies from the ruins of three buildings in Mosul Jadida and believe that dozens more remain under the rubble of one building, a large home with a once cavernous basement, in which up to 100 people had hidden last Friday morning.
Local people at the site told the Observer that the enormous damage inflicted on the homes and much of the surrounding area had been caused by airstrikes, which battered the neighbourhood in the middle of a pitched battle with Isis members, who were under attack from Iraqi forces.
The UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Lise Grande, said: “We are stunned by this terrible loss of life.”
Chris Woods, director of monitoring group Airwars, said: “The Jadida incident alone is the worst toll of a single [airstrike] incident that I can recall in decades.
The coalition’s argument that it doesn’t target noncombatants risks being devalued when so many civilians are being killed in west Mosul.”
He warned that the deaths, and other recent attacks in Syria that have claimed dozens of lives, risked turning public sentiment against the coalition.
“We have until recently always credited the coalition for taking care to avoid civilian casualties, compared with the Russians.
But since the last months of 2016 you have seen this steep climb in civilian casualties and public sentiment has turned very sharply against the US-led coalition.”
As the scale of the disaster became apparent, Iraqi military sources confirmed that they had been ordered not to launch new operations.
Mosul Jadida residents said three homes had taken direct hits from airstrikes and others had been damaged by debris and shelling.
“They started in the morning and they continued till around 2pm,” said Mustafa Yeheya.
“There were Isis on the roof of several of the buildings and they were in the streets fighting.
But the strange thing is that the house they were hiding in, their military room, was not even hit.
None of their bases was.”
Journalists were banned from entering west Mosul on Saturday and Iraqi commanders could not be contacted.
Iraqi and US forces have previously said that Isis deliberately blended among the civilian population and, in some cases, fighters were posted near civilian targets in a bid to increase casualties and slow the offensive against them.
A United States Central Command statement said: “Our goal has always been for zero civilian casualties, but the coalition will not abandon our commitment to our Iraqi partners because of Isis’s inhuman tactics terrorising civilians, using human shields and fighting from protected sites such as schools, hospitals, religious sites and civilian neighbourhoods.”
Muawiya Ismael, who said he had lost six members of his clan in the attack, said: “It is true that this was a battle zone and that Isis were here.
They had about 15 people in the area, and they were in high positions.
But they did not have heavy guns.
Nothing that should justify an attack of this scale.
It was not in proportion to the threat and soldiers could have fixed this.”