A tragedy is unfolding in Mosul, the northern Iraqi city that Islamic State (IS) has brutally occupied since June 2014.
Airstrikes conducted by the international coalition have killed more than 300 civilians in the course of a few weeks. And an investigation is under way to determine who is to blame for more than 200 deaths in Mosul’s al-Jadida neighbourhood on March 17. This is the most deadly event in the battle for Mosul so far.
Given the carnage this one attack caused, it is perhaps unsurprising that local sources put the kill count much higher. Bassma Bassim, head of the Mosul District Council, claimed airstrikes killed “more than 500” civilians in one week in March alone.
All too familiar
The spike in civilian deaths during February and March has been so dramatic it has prompted speculation that the US military has changed its rules of engagement. It has also sparked debate about whether deaths caused by the West are held to a different standard than those caused by countries like Russia.
Long-time Middle East journalist Patrick Cockburn argues the West vehemently denounced Russia and Syria for alleged war crimes for indiscriminate bombing of densely populated areas during the siege of Aleppo, while hypocritically engaging in similar activities in Mosul at the same time.
The result has been the same. Scores of civilians have been killed in their homes or crushed beneath the rubble of supposed bomb shelters. This has led Amnesty to suggest the coalition is violating international humanitarian law in its campaign in Mosul.
It is not the first time Western airstrikes have killed Iraqis at the same time as Western politicians have claimed to be saving Iraq. But the deaths in Mosul on March 17 – a day after the anniversary of the 1988 Halabja chemical weapons massacre – will add another tragic anniversary to Iraq’s already overloaded memorial calendar.
Mosul’s residents are caught between the brutal violence of IS, which hides among civilians and uses them as human shields, and the amassed firepower of the Iraqi armed forces and their international backers. As one Mosul resident put it:
We are like the wheat between the millstones. They are killing us.
Similarly, the destruction caused by airstrikes have left some Mosul residents wondering whether the putative cure is any better than the disease. One local expressed his view that:
After watching what happened here, I really believe now that the US and Daesh [IS] are a team, working together to destroy our country.
Such sentiments do not bode well for national reconciliation and the reintegration of those who have lived under IS rule.
Wider social and humanitarian crisis
Since it began in October 2016, the fight to liberate Mosul from IS has created a humanitarian crisis which is further straining Iraqi and international resources. It has caused mass displacement, destruction and trauma.
For the 190,000 Iraqis who have been displaced by the Mosul campaign, the most immediate needs are shelter, protection and food security. The UN is concerned that up to 450,000 displaced people will soon need shelter in camps established near Mosul. It expects 3 to 4 million will remain homeless if and when the fighting finally ends.
Longer term, there will be a need for individual and community healing. Mosul residents have described an IS regime of brutality, propaganda and intimidation. Minority groups have been massacred. Women have been forced into sex slavery. Children have been exposed to brutal violence.
These experiences will leave deep scars and social divisions. Reconciliation will be complex and painful. National political leaders have already found themselves at loggerheads about the shape reconciliation might take.
Years of corruption, which undermines effective service delivery, has eroded the government’s capacity to deal with a new generation of traumatised Iraqis. International support will be vital. But the present UN High Commissioner for Refugees has received only 4% of the funding requested.
The impacts of Mosul’s brutal occupation and painful liberation are compounding Iraq’s seemingly endless list of social and economic problems.
Displaced people face difficulties when they try to return home. Returning Mosul residents have to contend with shortages of water, electricity and employment opportunities.
Large amounts of money are needed for reconstruction and to breathe life back into services. The Iraqi government, faced with a looming financial crisis, will rely on international loans for this.
Mosul will remain insecure and dangerous for some time. Problems will persist after liberation including traps, infiltrators and sleepers, and the confusion and fear these tactics create. As in other post-IS cities, various non-state armed groups may play a role in providing security. This creates the potential for new conflicts.
At the same time, IS tactics will continue to evolve – shifting emphasis from territorial control to guerrilla warfare and terrorist bombings – so it can keep killing Iraqis, target vulnerable communities to stoke religious and ethnic tensions, and try to undermine the Iraqi government’s legitimacy.
For the past few weeks, Iraqis have used the social media hashtag #مأساة_الموصل, masat al-Mosul – “the tragedy of Mosul” – to share news reports and images from Mosul and surrounding areas.
It has also been used to request donations to various relief efforts for displaced people, often accompanying photos of volunteers and their supplies.
There is no equivalent hashtag in English. This is a small but telling reflection of Western indifference to Iraqi civilian deaths and international news media priorities.
The tragedy of Mosul is that while IS’s territorial project in Iraq is coming to an end, it is creating new problems – destruction, displacement, trauma – that exacerbate the country’s existing challenges.
The West must acknowledge its role in stoking this crisis, just as Russia and Iran have been responsible for suffering in Syria. Mosul, it seems, is the West’s Aleppo.
Damian Doyle, PhD Candidate, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Australian National University and Tristan Dunning, School of Political Science and International Studies, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, The University of Queensland