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Civilian deaths blight battle for Mosul
United States and Iraqi authorities are investigating whether they are responsible for the deaths of over 300 civilians in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Amnesty International says the coalition is failing to protect civilians after an alleged coalition air strike on 17 March left at least 150 dead.
Confusion reigns in Iraq over the cause of civilian casualties in Mosul, where US and Iraqi forces have been battling the Islamic State (IS) armed group since October.
The UN has called for an "urgent" review of military tactics.
At least 112 bodies were pulled from the rubble of a destroyed building on Tuesday at a site where witnesses reported seeing a coalition airstrike.
Iraq's military has blamed IS militants for rigging the building with explosives to cause civilian casualties.
"Whatever the behaviour of the Islamic State group, it does not relieve the other party: the coalition and the Iraqi forces of their duty to take all possible measures to minimise harm to civilians," Donatella Rovera from Amnesty International, who carried out field investigations in Mosul, told RFI.
"Our findings on the ground show that that the coalition has not done enough to protect civilians."
An allegation, which if still being probed by US and Iraqi authorities, is considered serious enough by the United Nations for it to call for an "urgent" review of military tactics.
"It is vital that the Iraqi Security Forces and their Coalition partners avoid" falling into the trap of "this enemy that ruthlessly exploits civilians to serve its own ends," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said in a statement.
300+ civlian deaths
More than 300 civilians have been killed since the start of the west Mosul operation on 17 February.
Amnesty International says the toll could have been lower had the coalition avoided using heavy equipment like large bombs.
Witnesses survivors told Amnesty that IS members were on the rooves of buildings that were completely destroyed by air strikes, killing entire families.
"It would have been possible to target those specific people who were indeed legitimate targets without going for the kind of munition that destroys the whole house and kills civilians inside," Rovera argues.
The other accusation made by the rights group is the fact that Iraqi authorities repeatedly advised civilians to stay at home, saying it was inevitable that they would be killed.
Refugees become targets
The coalition argues it wanted to avoid civilians being used as human shields.
"I think they're [the coalition] caught between a rock and a hard place," Professor George Joffe of Cambridge University told RFI.
"There have been people who have escaped, but don't forget they become targets in their own right."
In a city like Mosul which is densely populated this is inevitable.
It would have been extremely difficult for US and Iraqi forces to protect over one million displaced people.
The fact nonetheless remains that there were a large number of civilian casualties.
"The more bloody the recovery of Mosul becomes, the more the danger of the Sunni population of the city being once again disaffected from central government will increase," reckons Joffe.
Deaths a recruitment driver for IS
A similiar situation occured in Fallujah in the centre of the country in 2004 when the coalition launched an offensive to capture the Sunni-majority city.
It became a base for al-Qaeda-linked groups, in part because of the deaths of innocent people, which add to IS's narrative that the West is out to maim Iraq.
"One shouldn't assume that a military victory means that Isis [IS] has disappeared," contiues Joffe. "It almost certainly won't have done, it would have gone underground and the danger will be that after the final initial victory, we will see a recrudescence of Isis because of the sectarian divide that exists."
Iraqi authorities have sought to mix up the army and police forces with a reasonable Sunni presence rather than using the Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi, the Shia-based popular mobilisation units that were used elsewhere, to avoid precisely that sectarian confrontation.
Joffe is still not convinced: "I don't know whether Abadi is in a position to control the Shia-dominated militias that now form the backbone of the Iraqi armed forces."
The challenge for the coalition in Mosul will be to win back the confidence of the Sunni population. This means taking great care about the way they reorganise the recapture of the city itself.