Baghdad, Mosul- The United Nations and human rights organizations have expressed concern over the rising number of civilian deaths in the Iraqi army’s battles with ISIS in West Mosul where residents are using carts to carry the bodies of the dead to nearby villages for burial.
Shihab Ayed and several other men were seen struggling to push a cart carrying the bodies of his son and wife, wrapped in blankets, through a muddy ditch nearly 3 km from their destroyed home in Mosul.
Four other carts followed, laden with days-old corpses from air strikes which the men said had killed 21 relatives and neighbors in an area ISIS militants controlled earlier in the week.
Ayed, a 40-year-old laborer, pulled back a blanket to show his only son, three-and-a-half year-old Ahmed, lying lifeless with his eyes closed and a big gash in his right cheek.
“Three houses were destroyed by two air strikes,” Ayed said.
“ISIS fighters were firing from our house and from the road outside, and we were hiding inside. Fifteen minutes later the strikes hit.
“We pulled the bodies from the rubble and now we’re going to bury them. Then I’ll come back to my three remaining daughters,” Ayed told Reuters, in tears.
The bodies had begun to smell but it had only just become safe enough to leave the district, now cleared of the militants, and bring the carts to Mosul airport, where a bus might be able to take them to the nearest village for burial, he said.
Rights groups have expressed concern over the mounting civilian death toll, as ISIS fights from homes and densely-populated areas, a threat the Iraqi military and US-led coalition have been countering with heavy weaponry to
support troops on the ground.
Families fleeing Mosul in recent weeks have talked of high numbers of civilians killed by air strikes, and said that in many cases ISIS jihadists have already slipped away by the time the bombs hit.
“When the coalition see a sniper on a home, it’s five or ten minutes before that house is hit,” Mohammed Mahmoud, a 40-year-old former police officer, told Reuters in another area of Mosul.
“But they don’t kill ISIS militants. They withdraw, and the strikes end up killing civilians – whole families.”
ISIS’ tactics since the beginning of the offensive to drive them out of Mosul, which began in October, have been to deploy car bombs and snipers, rain shellfire on troops and residents alike and take cover among the civilian population.
Human Rights Watch has said the fight to recapture the western half of Mosul has been “dirtier and deadlier to civilians” than the battle to retake the east, which was completed in January.
The New York-based watchdog said Iraqi Interior Ministry units had recently used non-precision rockets in west Mosul.
“Their indiscriminate nature makes their use in populated civilian areas a serious violation of the laws of war,” it said in a statement.
Separately, the United Nations says it has received many reports of civilian deaths in air strikes. The number of civilians killed in the Mosul campaign – by ISIS, including executions, or by errant Iraqi and coalition fire – is unclear, with various estimates given by residents, watchdogs and the military.
The US-led coalition backing Iraqi forces with air power and military advisers admits causing unintentional civilian deaths.
This month the US military said the total number of civilians killed by the coalition since the start of operations against the militant group in 2014 in both Iraq and Syria was 220.
That estimate is lower than those of some monitoring groups. Airwars, a journalist-run project to monitor civilian casualties, says at least 2,590 civilians have likely been killed by coalition “actions” since 2014, including scores in Mosul in the first week of March alone.
Coalition and Iraqi forces have mostly been careful to avoid civilian deaths, a reason military officials said they slowed some assaults in eastern Mosul last year.
But the west, which houses the narrow-alleyed Old City, has been a tougher fight, and ISIS has pinned down Iraqi forces for days on end in some areas without significant advances.
The level of destruction is visibly greater, with dozens of buildings flattened and large holes in roads from air strikes.
In the wrecked Mamoun district on Tuesday, a man trudged down a muddy road in search of body bags.
“I have 18 bodies I need to bury — my brother’s family,” Faisal Umm Tayran, 50, said matter-of-factly.
“They’re just lying in the garden at the moment.”
Retaking Iraq’s second city would be a major blow to ISIS following months of jihadist losses in both Iraq and Syria.
Iraqi authorities say more than 150,000 people have fled their homes in west Mosul, with two-thirds finding shelter in camps near the city.
On Saturday, father of five Samir Hamid and 33 family members displaced by the fighting returned home to the Wadi Hajar district recaptured by Iraqi forces, saying the camps were too crowded.
“We’ll be better off at home,” he told Agence France Presse. “We’re going back because we were told the situation was much better, that there wasn’t any more fighting.”
In the Al-Jawsak neighborhood, residents have draped white flags at the entrance of small houses on the edge of streets strewn with rubble.
Luay Adnan, 34, reopened the family’s corner shop four days ago.
“I was at home with nowhere else to go. This shop is our only source of income,” he says in the dark interior of his store.
The bullet-ridden white shutters are closed, and the front window has been shattered to shards in the fighting.
“I opened up to allow people to shop, so that life can return to normal,” he says.
Ahmad, a neighbor in his forties with a greying beard, drops in to buy some mineral water, eggs and potatoes.
His 13-year-old son Mohammed waits timidly by his side, a white bandage stretched around his forehead, where he has been wounded by shelling.