MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi forces say their recent territorial gains against the Islamic State group in Mosul’s Old City have largely been propelled by airstrikes, despite a spike in allegations of civilian casualties and warnings from human rights groups of the dangers of using large munitions in the dense, highly-populated area.
As strikes pummeled the Old City Sunday, hundreds of civilians fled. Many were badly injured and had to be carried out over mounds of rubble by family members. Deeper inside the district, narrow alleyways were littered with bodies.
Special forces Lt. Col. Muhanad al-Timimi said over the past three days his forces have carried out about 20 airstrikes a day on IS-held territory within there are of operation — a portion of the Old City measuring about one square kilometer (0.6 square miles) in size.
“It’s because we have a lot of enemy forces here,” he said, conceding the number of munitions used was relatively high.
Half buried in a mound of rubble beside a strike crater, limbs protruded, darkened by dust and rotting in the summer heat. The pile of rocks was once a brightly painted house with a courtyard garden.
“Those were two Daesh fighters,” said Sgt. Ali Mehdi, a member of al-Timimi’s security detail, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
When the small unit rounded another narrow street the men silently stepped over the body of an elderly man lying in a pool of fresh blood.
A warning cracked over the radio that an airstrike was called in on a position just 50 meters away and the men ducked into a cleared home. When they emerged two more bodies, in civilian clothes and without weapons, lay in the next street.
Throughout the fight against IS, the U.S.-led coalition has largely relied on airstrikes to enable Iraqi ground forces to advance. But in previous battles, civilians were evacuated from front lines. In Mosul, the Iraqi government told the city’s estimated one million people to stay put to avoid massive displacement.
Iraqi forces have repeatedly requested airstrikes in Mosul, often to kill teams of just two or three IS fighters armed with light weapons.
Manhal Munir was sheltering in the basement of his home with his extended family when IS fighters took a position on his roof. They were targeted by an airstrike Sunday morning. The house collapsed.
“I just pulled my youngest daughter out with me,” Munir said at a nearby medic station, the toddler on his lap. “My mother was stuck between two large blocks of cement. We tried to free her,” he said, still covered in dust and his eyes red with grief. “After two hours she died.”
In the weeks leading up to the operation to retake the Old City the UN and human rights groups warned the Iraqi government against the use of explosive weapons with wide effects in the Old City area, where houses are tightly packed and the civilian population is dense.
“In the crowded Old City, using explosive weapons with wide area effects puts civilians at excessive risk,” Lama Fakih of Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
The coalition did not immediately respond to a request from The Associated Press as to what munitions are being used.
“The Coalition always seeks to use weapons that are proportional to the target to minimize collateral damage,” the U.S-led coalition said in a written statement.
“Nearly all munitions released have been precision guided to ensure we achieve the desired effects,” the statement continued. “The avoidance of civilian casualties is our highest priority.”
In a report Friday, Airwars said they “presently estimate that between 900 and 1,200 civilians were likely killed by Coalition air and artillery strikes over the course of the eight month (Mosul) campaign.”
The group said the territorial gains in Mosul come at a “terrible cost.”
The United Nations estimates that tens of thousands of civilians are still trapped inside the Old City.
Iraqi forces launched the operation to retake the Old City — IS’ last stand in Iraq’s second-largest city — in mid-June after eight months of grueling battles across Mosul’s eastern half and around the city’s western edge.
Iraq’s Prime Minister declared an end to IS’ so-called caliphate in late June and pledged victory was “near” after Iraqi forces retook the landmark al-Nuri mosque in the Old City.
Iraq’s federal police declared a partial victory Sunday, announcing they had completed “the liberation of our sector,” according to spokesman Captain Bassam Khadim.
Iraq’s special forces are now just 450 meters from the Tigris River that roughly divides Mosul in half, according to Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridi.
“For us, the airstrikes are better than artillery because they allow us to target the enemy accurately,” said special forces Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil. “They help us minimize civilian casualties and casualties among our own forces.”