Islamic State-held human shields in Mosul complicate coalition strikes

Recuperating in West Irbil Emergency Hospital in Iraq on March 11, 2017, Amar Khthair, 17, said he was injured in a coalition airstrike after Islamic State militants used his western Mosul home as a fighting position. He said 25 of his family members had been killed in the strike and he was the only survivor.


By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 25, 2017

QAYARA WEST AIRFIELD, Iraq — The missile was midair, heading toward an Islamic State fighter when he suddenly pulled a family from a nearby house as a shield.

“I just did not engage,” said Capt. Lucas Gebhart, pilot of an Apache attack helicopter that fired the missile. Gebhart recounted the incident at this base about 40 miles south of Mosul, where Iraqi forces are battling the extremists. “I just directed [the missile] to where it wouldn’t hit them.”

The procedure, called “shifting cold,” allowed Gebhart to prevent civilian casualties. That’s something U.S. troops, who are supporting Iraqi forces with precision-guided strikes, say they take great care to do, aided in part by pricey “smart munitions.”

As Iraqi forces push deeper into Mosul’s Old City of narrow streets and densely packed houses, the presence of an estimated 400,000 civilians will likely make avoiding noncombatant deaths more challenging. The risks were highlighted in a recent incident in which a strike may have set off massive truck bombs rigged by militants.

“The west side is very congested. It will present new challenges for us as we advance,” said Gebhart, commander of the 4th Squadron, 6th Cavalry’s Bravo Troop of attack helicopters. “We have to be more careful as we get further.”

So far in the five-month long battle to oust the Islamic State fighters who have held Mosul since 2014, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have liberated the eastern half of the city, divided by the Tigris River. Troops began the advance on the city’s western half last month and are nearing the Grand Mosque, where the militants’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed a global caliphate in 2014.

The Bravo Troop Apaches fly nearly daily missions, weather permitting, providing close air support for Iraqi maneuvers and responding to situations when coalition or Iraqi troops come under enemy fire. They also escort medical evacuation flights.

“I love my job,” said Gebhart, wearing a dusty U.S. cavalry hat. He’s doing what he always imagined he’d do as an Apache pilot.

The 32-year-old native of Laconia, N.H., enlisted in the Army soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He served in a support job with the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq in 2003 before attending West Point and earning a commission in 2009. He’s having a lot more fun in the country this time, he said.

Since early December, his Apaches have been “a lot more engaged in supporting the Iraqis.” The unit has clocked more than 200 engagements against the militants since then — each one approved by Iraqi officials. As defined by the U.S.-led coalition, strikes may be made up of several engagements.

The enemy is bold and the fight is “very kinetic,” Gebhart said, using a term favored by military officials to describe lethal violence. “We have shot a lot of car bombs as they have driven toward the Iraqis.”

But, using an Arabic acronym for the jihadis, he said: “the Iraqis impressed me with their willingness to engage with Daesh.” U.S. officials say it’s only a matter of time before the militants are defeated.

Iraqi Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul claimed on Tuesday that Iraqi forces control nearly two-thirds of the city’s west and are a few hundred meters from the mosque, which he said is a significant landmark for the militants. Iraqi forces plan to raise the country‘s flag there soon, he said, but troops are advancing slowly to avoid unintended casualties — their first priority.

“It’s a hard fight with civilians inside,” Rasoul said. “We are trying to evacuate them.”

More than 270,000 people have been displaced by the fighting in Mosul, according to the International Organization for Migration. Of those, 110,000 have fled just since fighting began in the western half of the city.

Fleeing civilians, front-line doctors and troops have all said women and children are frequently caught in the crossfire. They say the militants often deliberately put them there by firing on them when they flee or using them as shields when they stay.

Recently, at a hospital in the Kurdish region’s capital, a man named Khaled Salim was being treated for a chest wound after a militant sniper shot him in the Yarmuk area of western Mosul. His 6-year-old son had been shot in the leg and his young daughter was killed as they tried to flee to safety.

Down the hall, 17-year-old Amar Khthair was recuperating from injuries he said were sustained when an airstrike hit his home in western Mosul’s Mamun neighborhood.

Militants had been firing on coalition aircraft from inside the home before fleeing to another house, said Amar, whose head was bandaged and face was cut up. The aircraft fired back, killing 25 of his family members. He said he was the only survivor.

A neighbor who had accompanied him to the hospital corroborated the story, but it’s often difficult to independently verify such claims.

Airwars, a nonprofit seeking to track all civilian deaths in the campaign against the Islamic State and other groups in Iraq, Syria and Libya, estimates that 2,700 to 4,000 civilians have likely been killed in coalition strikes.

Coalition officials say that “in some incidents casualties are unavoidable.” As of early March, officials assessed that, “more likely than not,” coalition strikes had killed at least 220 civilians unintentionally. In some cases, civilians aren’t observed before a strike, or they enter the target area after weapons have been released.

Some fleeing civilians have reported that the militants have rigged cars with explosives near homes to create chain reactions of secondary explosions and to increase unintended effects if struck.

That may be what happened in a strike last week that may have triggered one or more massive truck bombs, according to some reports. Local civil defense officials told the Los Angeles Times at least 200 people were killed as a reult, potentially the highest civilian death toll from an airstrike since the U.S. began conducting them against the Islamic State in the summer of 2014.

The coalition acknowledged Saturday that a strike was conducted in the area and said it is reviewing the credibility of the casualty claims. Two others in Syria that may have killed dozens of civilians in the past two weeks are also under review.

Despite intentionally endangering civilians in Mosul the Islamic State group is using their deaths for propaganda. The independentcounterterrorism organization SITE Intelligence Group reported that the media wing of the Islamic State group on Tuesday claimed 1,800 civilians had been killed in Mosul by “continuous American-Iraqi massacres.” An accompanying video purported to show the devastation in the city.

Gebhart said most of his pilots are fathers and husbands themselves and are “very deliberate” in what they do to avoid unintentional casualties.

“It weighs on people’s conscience whenever they deploy weapons in the city,” he said.

But, referring to incidents where strikes have allegedly hit homes after the militants had fled, he said, “I can’t see into houses.”

Fog on March 17 had limited what the Apaches could do over Mosul. Four of the helicopters detached to the airfield from Irbil sat idly on the tarmac, but in a nearby part of base, the “Odin” battery of the 18th Field Artillery Brigade was readying several High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems for a fire mission.

Bob Marley played in a tent being used as the unit’s gym as trucks mounted with the rocket launchers rushed to a firing point on the edge of the base. Their GPS-guided rockets are accurate to “a couple meters” at a range of about 10 to 45 miles, said Platoon commander 1st Lt. Mary Floyd.

Known as the “70 kilometer sniper,” the roughly $100,000 precision-guided rocket is preferred for strikes in built-up areas of Mosul because it hits its targets at a near-vertical angle and its 200-pound high explosive warhead penetrates the ground before detonating, limiting unintended damage.

“They have very, very low collateral damage, which is why they like to use them a lot,” Floyd said. Blasts are typically confined to a single house, she said, and aerial imagery taken after some strikes has shown nearly perfect circular holes in the roof of a target where rockets punched through.

Hundreds had been fired since the battery deployed to the airfield in August, Floyd said. Not far away dozens of spent six-pack rocket pods lay in a muddy lot.

“We’ve had to end missions before because they’ve seen civilians in the area,” she said as the HIMARS trucks sat waiting to discharge their lethal cargo.

Floyd, a Sumter, S.C., native, considers herself lucky to be a part of the mission to defeat the Islamic State. “It’s a good feeling to feel that what we’re doing is making a difference.”

Soon, two rockets roared skyward, leaving trails of white smoke on their high-arching paths toward Mosul. Minutes later, four more thundered away and soon another four. A million-dollar afternoon.

“It never gets old,” Floyd said. “We love to fire. It makes me very happy.”

Twitter: @chadgarland

After being shot in the leg by an Islamic State sniper in his neighborhood in western Mosul, Iraq, 6-year-old Tarek, pictured here eating lunch on March 11, 2017, was being treated at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-built West Irbil Emergency Hospital in the Kurdish region's capital. Civilians fleeing Mosul have become targets of the militant's violence. Those who stay are often used as human shields.