IRBIL, Iraq — As the battle to liberate west Mosul from the Islamic State intensifies, more Iraqi civilians caught in the crossfire are dying in airstrikes that have gotten scant attention, residents who escaped report.
A March 17 strike on a building that killed at least dozens and possibly as many as 200 civilians provoked international concern. Yet eyewitnesses to the destruction in Mosul told USA TODAY that many similar strikes occur in the city without public notice.
The U.S. military acknowledged that allegations of civilian casualties as a result of a U.S.-led coalition's air campaign against the Islamic State have increased significantly this year.
The coalition received 27 reports of incidents involving civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria in January, up from 12 in December, according to the most recent statistics. Nineteen reported incidents are still being assessed.
The massive March 17 strike led to
the collapse of a building in Mosul, the Islamic State's last major stronghold in Iraq. Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend said there is a "fair chance" that the coalition played a role in the strike, but he said the Islamic State might share blame for holding civilians hostage.
In an earlier strike, Khalid Jassim, 34, a former construction worker, said he was in his house on March 11 when he heard Islamic State fighters enter an empty house adjacent to his. Jassim hid his children under blankets, expecting an attack. Ten minutes later, an airstrike leveled both houses, leaving him and his pregnant wife potentially paralyzed.
"We heard the sound of a plane and tried to escape," said Jassim, as he laid on a hospital bed in west Irbil, 50 miles east of Mosul, near his wife Suheida,19. "We were trapped under the rubble for one hour."
Most houses on Jassim's block were destroyed by "daily" airstrikes, which were targeting Islamic State fighters. "Many people died as a result," Jassim said.
Jassim said a friend's house had 27 people inside when it was hit by an airstrike the week before the March 17 incident. "No one survived, including my friend," he said.
Zeyad Suleiman, 35, confirmed airstrikes happened daily in the same Jadida neighborhood where the March 17 strike occurred despite there being "very few" Islamic State fighters there. He said his aunt, Shita Abaid Idris, 45, was injured by shrapnel from an Iraqi army rocket attack
Suleiman and several other civilians estimated there were at least 50 airstrikes since the west Mosul offensive by Iraqi forces reached their neighborhood around March 11. He added there were many rocket attacks by soldiers.
USA TODAY saw Iraqi forces launch unguided rockets in the direction of Islamic State positions since the west Mosul operation started.
Dhaha Mahmood, 10, who was treated for a sniper wound, said her family took her to a neighbor's house to take cover after several Islamic State fighters used their roof. Later that day they were heading back to their house when they saw an airstrike destroy it. If it had struck a little later, it could have killed them, said Mahmood and her aunt, Nahla Ahmed, 45.Mubasher Dannon, 37, came to the hospital here to tend to his brother, Ali, 50, who was injured in the March 17 airstrike. Dannon said 21 of his friends and relatives were killed by a strike in a separate building on March 16. He said he found four of their corpses.Foad Dawod, 21, said he saw his neighbor's house bombed because Islamic State fighters were on the roof. There were 28 civilians in the house at the time. Dawod said he did not know how many of them were killed or injured.Mosul residents said civilians are vulnerable to airstrikes in densely packed neighborhoods, where they have been taking shelter. Those who felt exposed, moved into larger houses for better cover, according to Dawod and Nasheen Ahmeel, who lived in one of those neighborhoods."There were 105 people in our house at one point, but we moved some of them out to surrounding houses and then there were 68," Dawod said. "It stayed like this for more than a month."As more buildings are destroyed by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, as well as by Iraq forces and the U.S.-led air campaign, people have fewer options for shelter, Jassim said. In some neighborhoods, more than half of the houses have partially collapsed, he said.Suleiman said people are concentrating in areas close to Iraqi forces in hopes of being rescued sooner. "Many people were fleeing (the Islamic State), so they gathered in big houses in the part of the neighborhood where the military was coming," he said.All those interviewed denied Islamic State fighters forced them to gather in certain houses. However, they said the militants sometimes fired from rooftops of houses they knew were densely packed either to avoid return fire or to bait Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition to strike."(The Islamic State) chose strategic houses with the most civilians in them so that when they were destroyed, it would damage the reputation of Iraqi forces," Dawod said.
Several residents said the airstrikes and rocket attacks were too "random" and didn't take precautions against hitting civilians.
"Before, they were extremely accurate. When they were trying to take out a sniper, only the sniper was hit. When they attacked a motorcycle weaving between cars, they only hit the motorcycle," said Nashwan Ahmeel, who was recovering in the hospital from multiple shrapnel wounds. More recently, he said, "warplanes are random."
If warplanes see civilians in the target zone they don't attack, but if they see ISIS fighters on the roof and are not sure if there are civilians inside the same house, they attack, Jassim said.
The growing strikes on civilian targets is making people lose faith in Iraq forces and the U.S.-led coalition, Suleiman said. "People don't want liberation like that," he said. "People once trusted them but now they don't."