The barbarism of the US-engineered assault to retake Mosul guarantees that the same conditions which made it vulnerable to ISIS will persist, writes Eric Ruder.
"That place, it was absolute death”, said a man as he fled Mosul’s Old City in search of safety. “We will never be the same. Once the fear has been planted in your heart, you can’t get rid of it.”
The US-led drive to eradicate the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from Mosul has succeeded in that objective – but at a terrible price to the people who live in what was once Iraq’s second-largest city and home to 2 million people.
The devastation left behind by the US-orchestrated assault is mind-boggling. Whole blocks of the Old City have been razed to the ground. Operations to clear out as many as a couple hundred ISIS holdouts are ongoing.
The US military admits it has killed 603 civilians since it began its bombing campaign against ISIS in August 2014, but this is an unvarnished lie. According to Airwars, a journalist-led nonprofit organisation that monitors air strikes in Iraq and Syria, US air strikes killed more civilians than that – between 900 and 1,200 – in just the nine-month campaign to retake Mosul.
Airwars estimates that the total number of civilians killed by US-led coalition air strikes in Iraq and Syria between August 2014 and June 2017 to be at least 4,354.
According to Belkis Wille, senior Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch, US-backed forces used a “massive uptick in ground fire” and large 500- to 1,000-pound crater bombs that cause huge destruction and many deaths to carry out the final assault on Mosul.
When Human Rights Watch called for not using those powerful weapons, it was rebuffed, Wille said. There was a “general feeling among the military forces, ‘We need to keep the momentum up. It’s better for the civilians of Mosul if we can get ISIS out’”, she said.
Beyond the casualties is the latest of many refugee crises in Iraq – more than 900,000 of the city’s residents were forced to flee, according to estimates.
Though the Trump administration has taken most of the blame for the spike in civilian casualties coinciding with the drive to retake Mosul, the truth is that the Obama administration’s changes to the US military’s rules of engagement – in April 2016 and in December 2016 – led to the increase.
The first change by the Obama administration’s Department of Defense relaxed the rules of engagement so that air strikes could endanger the lives of up to 10 civilians if they were considered strategically important. Before that, commanders were barred from ordering strikes that were likely to kill innocent bystanders in most cases.
At that time, the US also began deploying B-52 bombers in the Middle East for the first time in 13 years, signalling a major escalation. The Cold War-era bombers are infamous for carrying out the carpet-bombing of Vietnam in the 1970s. This coincided with an uptick in coalition air strikes.
The second change – a directive issued by the US Army as the Obama administration was preparing to hand Trump the keys to the White House in December 2016 – allowed US commanders to directly order artillery and air strikes in support of the Iraqi military units they were partnered with without getting clearance from higher up the chain of command.
By late December, as Iraqi troops got bogged down after weeks of heavy fighting, the Pentagon confirmed that US troops were themselves deployed in the battle for Mosul, not just supporting Iraqi forces as advisers.
Another reason for the massive destruction of Mosul is that US officials made a conscious decision not to allow an exit corridor for ISIS fighters willing to abandon the field of battle. By contrast, in Fallujah, the US did establish an exit corridor for those fighters willing to retreat, and the city was largely saved.
ISIS took control of Mosul in June 2014 when its forces quickly overran the US-trained Iraqi army troops assigned to defend the city.
ISIS dispatched about 1,200 fighters to take Mosul from some 30,000 Iraqi army troops. When the Iraqi troops fled, they left behind an enormous cache of military hardware, including Humvees, helicopters and machine guns. Some $500 million in assets in Mosul’s banks also fell into ISIS’s hands.
But as Ashley Smith wrote at SocialistWorker.org at the time, the key reason for the Iraqi army’s rapid collapse was that years of abuse by the Iraqi military had alienated a majority of the city’s residents, leaving the military without substantial support:
“Half a million people have fled Mosul in terror, according to the International Organization for Migration, searching for refuge in other cities of the Kurdish-controlled North. But most of Mosul’s population was happy to see the Iraqi Army depart. The majority look on it as an occupying Shia force.”
As one Mosul resident told the Guardian at the time:
“I feel we have been liberated from an awful nightmare that was suffocating us for 11 years. The army and the police never stopped arresting, detaining and killing people, let alone the bribes they were taking from detainees’ families. Me and my neighbours are waiting for the news that the other six Sunni provinces have fallen into the hands of the ISIS fighters, to declare our Sunni region, like the three provinces in Kurdistan.”
Already, reports of revenge killings of ISIS fighters as well as anyone suspected of collaborating with ISIS are trickling out of Mosul. The situation could get much worse, as the Iraqi army re-imposes its rule over the city.
In this way, the drive to retake Mosul has exacerbated the dynamics that allowed ISIS to take the city in the first place, as the Shia-dominated Iraqi military lashes out at the city’s Sunni residents.
The military also works with Shia militias that have targeted people based on flimsy accusations of “sympathising” with ISIS, carried out torture and disappearances, and meted out horrific violence.
All of this ensures that, despite the uprooting of ISIS, the resistance to the Iraqi military by insurgent forces in the area won’t come to an end anytime soon.
First published at www.SocialistWorker.org.