Avoid civilian deaths in Mosul, urges UN

Human rights chief calls on Iraqi govt, US-led coalition to review tactics in fight against ISIS

GENEVA • The United Nations human rights chief has urged the Iraqi government and the US-led coalition to review tactics in Mosul, to spare civilians he said were being deliberately put at risk by the ISIS terrorist group.

At least 307 civilians have been killed and 273 wounded in western Mosul between Feb 17 and March 22, as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighters herded people into booby- trapped buildings as human shields and fired on those who fled, according to UN figures.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said yesterday: "This is an enemy that ruthlessly exploits civilians to serve its own ends, and clearly has not even the faintest qualm about deliberately placing them in danger.

"It is vital that the Iraqi security forces and their coalition partners avoid this trap."

The rules of war, as set out under the Geneva Conventions, require combatants to respect the principles of precaution and proportionality, and distinguish between combatants and civilians.

Mr Zeid also called on Iraqi and coalition forces to conduct transparent investigations into deadly incidents.

At least 307 civilians have been killed and 273 wounded in western Mosul between Feb 17 and March 22, as ISIS fighters herded people into booby-trapped buildings as human shields and fired on those who fled, according to UN figures.

A US military commander said its investigators are in Mosul to determine whether a US-led coalition strike or ISIS-rigged explosives caused a huge blast in al-Jadida district on March 17 that destroyed buildings.

Official figures indicate that at least 61 people were killed in that incident, "but the actual figure may be much higher", said Mr Zeid's spokesman Rupert Colville at a news briefing.

A municipal official said last Saturday that 240 bodies had been pulled from the rubble.

Meanwhile, in another incident on March 22, an air strike hit a residential building in Rajm Hadid neighbourhood.

"ISIS reportedly filled the house with people from the surrounding neighbourhood, including children, and then used the house to launch rocket-propelled grenades against the Iraqi security forces," said Mr Colville, quoting survivors.

He added: "In terms of the air strikes that have caused casualties... that is also complicated by the fact that ISIS reportedly actually placed explosive devices in these same buildings which they had herded civilians into. So that will of course have compounded the devastation."

Mr Colville also said it was "essential the coalition and the Iraqi forces really try hard to minimise the impact on the civilians".

"Clearly not easy... But they do have obligations under international humanitarian law."

Despite denials from the US, the perception of a shift in American tactics has persisted on the ground.

The Pentagon said on Monday that it was not loosening its rules of engagement in the fight against ISIS, but added that resources to investigate claims were limited.

As part of a review of the current strategy against ISIS, US President Donald Trump asked commanders in a Jan 28 memo to explore loosening restrictions imposed by the Obama administration that were designed to protect civilians. Officials are discussing proposed changes to that overall strategy.

Military officials said any possible changes would not alter the air campaign's compliance with international law and would also seek to minimise civilian deaths.

Meanwhile, another 200 US soldiers, all from the 82nd Airborne Division, are heading to Iraq to support the battle in the next few days.

Many Iraqi commanders welcome the more aggressive US role, saying coalition officers were too risk averse under the Obama administration. Iraqis also said fighting for the dense, urban spaces of western Mosul requires more air power, even if that results in more civilians deaths.

A total of 279,000 people are currently displaced as a result of the military operations in Mosul, said UN spokesman Farhan Haq at a news briefing on Monday. More than 220,000 of those displaced are from western Mosul.

REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST, NYTIMES, XINHUA

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2017, with the headline 'Avoid civilian deaths in Mosul, urges UN'. Print Edition | Subscribe