ERBIL and KIRKUK, Iraq — The United States is fighting another war in the Middle East. Thousands of soldiers are on the ground, planes are in the air, and shiploads of weapons are being sent to local allies.
The US-led coalition of 21 countries — formed in August to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State, in the words of US President Barack Obama — has so far carried out some 3,200 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Those strikes have also targeted Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda's official branch in Syria.
The Obama administration has authorized more than 3,000 American military personnel to train and advise Iraq’s security forces as they try to recapture territory from the militant group. Hundreds more soldiers from Germany, France and the United Kingdom, among others, are at work in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, training the Kurdish fighters known as the peshmerga.
While not counted as “boots on the ground” by the strictest definition of the term, the Western military advisers move openly between the front lines and forward operating bases in northern Iraq, coordinating closely with the peshmerga.
The US military support has helped significantly. The Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga have steadily regained territory since the Islamic State's surprise offensive last June. Peshmerga forces recently reclaimed an expanse of land southwest of Kirkuk, and have been able to repel several attacks by the group since. The Iraqi army, meanwhile, took back the key city of Tikrit with the help of Shia militias from the south. In both places, coalition airstrikes played an essential role.
But unmentioned in all the the stories of military triumphs is a problem that Western officials behind the campaign to defeat the Islamic State tend to downplay: civilian casualties.
There is little agreement over how many civilians have been killed by American-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Coalition officials say they have found zero credible reports of civilian casualties. Independent analysts say the number could be in the hundreds. And they warn that number will rise significantly when Iraqi security forces and the peshmerga launch an operation to retake the densely populated city of Mosul, an Islamic State stronghold.
Large-scale civilian casualties would likely contribute further to the Sunni community’s resentment of the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, which paved the way for the Islamic State’s rise in Iraq in the first place. Such a scenario would have significant consequences for the future of Iraq, and the world.
For US allies on the ground, an airstrike is often just a short phone call away. A mid-level peshmerga commander in Kirkuk told GlobalPost that on one occasion, an airstrike near Gwer, just west of Erbil, thwarted a large-scale Islamic State attack before it even started.
“I had a call from a friend in an ISIS-controlled area. He told me that there was a group of one hundred ISIS fighters gathering for an attack. They were at a checkpoint ready to go,” the commander said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “I made contact with the security services and the coalition, and 25 minutes later they were bombed.”
At a hastily constructed cluster of concrete buildings near Kirkuk that serves as a peshmerga command center, a large map covered the wall of one room. A pin labeled “USA” marked the location of the base. A team of American advisers regularly visit the base to coordinate with the peshmerga, the commander said. Commanders on front lines in other areas of northern Iraq speak of a similarly close relationship.
“Since the first days [of the Islamic State offensive], the Americans have been with us,” Jamal Mohamad Omar, a peshmerga commander operating in the Sinjar region close to the Syrian border, told GlobalPost. “There are teams in the front lines, and we have a common operation room. We coordinate about the position of the enemy and strike the enemy. So we have a very good relationship.”
In Sinjar, where different Kurdish factions are holding the front line against the Islamic State, teams from various coalition countries coordinate with the peshmerga.
“Always there are some different teams. Sometimes American, sometimes French, sometimes British,” he said by telephone from Mount Sinjar, adding that the British team was now in the area. “They collect information for pilots.”
The speed with which peshmerga fighters on the ground can call in airstrikes is impressive and worrisome in equal measure. The time between when a commander on the ground can make a phone call and a bomb is dropped raises questions about the measures being taken to mitigate potential mistakes, particularly when it comes to protecting civilians.
The peshmerga commander in Kirkuk said there's a two-step process. He receives intelligence on a particular target — or is given it by a trusted source — then the coalition verifies that information from the air. If the intelligence lines up, the jets launch their missiles (American jets carry out roughly 85 percent of all coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State).
Jabar Manda, general secretary at the Ministry of Peshmerga, told GlobalPost that “sometimes we are giving [the coalition] targets and sometimes after observation they will choose targets.”
American military officials are a little more vague.
In response to questions from GlobalPost about safeguarding civilians, US Army Capt. John J. Moore, a spokesman for the coalition, said there is “a detailed, multi-echelon process between the coalition partners, as well as the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. Without their request and approval, a strike will not occur.”
He added that the coalition takes “strict precautions to avoid civilian casualties and collateral damage.”
In areas of Syria and Iraq held by the Islamic State, verifying civilian casualties is difficult. But despite all the measures to prevent innocent people being caught up in the bombings, strong evidence suggests civilians are dying in the coalition's airstrikes.
Investigative reporter Chris Woods has just published a book on the US armed drone program, "Sudden Justice," which examines recent US air campaigns in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, he runs a project called airwars.org that monitors reports of civilian casualties caused by the coalition in the fight against the Islamic State.
He says he has “no doubt” that civilians have been killed by coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, and that the number is probably somewhere in the hundreds.
“We’re talking about more than 3,000 airstrikes, 11,500 munitions dropped across Iraq and Syria. Civilian casualties are an inevitability,” he said. “They are certainly attempting to limit as much as they can, but they have not eliminated them. Any claims to the contrary are quite simply false.”
Based on credible reports of civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria, is is their provisional view that “there are reasonable indications of between 240-300 civilian non-combatant deaths caused by coalition strikes," according to airwars.org.
While reports of civilian deaths emerge from time-to-time, US military officials are quick to reject them.
Local news outlets reported that 18 civilians were killed in an airstrike in October last year in the town of Hit, in Iraq’s Anbar province. Maj. Curtis J. Kellogg, a spokesman for US Central Command, said at the time that there was “no evidence” of civilian deaths in the town.
Similar accounts have since emerged from Syria. On Dec. 28 last year, a coalition airstrike targeted an Islamic State headquarters in the Syrian border town of Al Bab. A witness to the airstrike interviewed by McClatchy reported a death toll of 61 civilians, along with 16 Islamic State fighters. The witness said the building was being used as an Islamic State prison, and the civilians killed were being held by the group.
US Central Command later admitted to carrying out the attack, but told the news agency that a review of the airstrike found no evidence of civilian casualties.
The discrepancy between reported civilian casualties caused by coalition strikes and those confirmed by the coalition is vast.
Coalition officials said they have not confirmed a single civilian death from the airstrikes. It’s not that the US military is oblivious to the reports of civilian deaths. Rather, it seems the threshold for confirming them is extremely high.
The US military examined some 38 reports that airstrikes have killed civilians in Iraq and Syria between Aug. 8 — when the operation against the Islamic State began — and March 24. Thirty-two of those allegations were found by the US military to be not credible. Capt. Moore told GlobalPost that the military is now investigating the possible deaths of four civilians by coalition airstrikes in three separate incidents, but so far there “are no completed investigations that have confirmed civilian casualties.”
Capt. Moore suggested that some of the reports were Islamic State propaganda.
"We have seen examples of [the Islamic State] occasionally and erroneously providing accounts of civilian casualties in order to weaken the trust between the Iraqi people and the coalition."
THE FIGHT FOR MOSUL
The upcoming battle for Mosul will be the biggest test yet for the coalition and its allies on the ground, both in terms of defeating the Islamic State and preventing civilian casualties.
The majority Sunni city of 1.5 million people has become a bastion for the Islamic State since they took control of it in June of last year. It is the largest population center under the group’s control, and it's unlikely they will give it up easily.
The little information coming out of the city indicates that the Islamic State is turning Mosul into a fortress. Residents in the city have reported seeing militants digging trenches around the city in preparation for the fight. At the same time, the group has not allowed residents to leave, raising fears that they could be used as "human shields" when the much-anticipated offensive finally arrives.
Like previous battles, it will be near impossible for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to retake the city without massive assistance from the coalition’s air power. But unlike previous battles, which were mostly in rural areas, this one will take place in a crowded city.
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With the offensive looming, the coalition is training thousands of Iraqi troops and peshmerga fighters in urban warfare. They are also training them in the high-tech weaponry being sent to them from coalition countries.
The United States recently sent some 10,000 rifles, 100,000 magazines of ammunition, 250 armored vehicles and more than 232 Hellfire missiles to the Iraqi army. Germany sent the peshmerga a shipment of MILAN anti-tank missiles this month. Britain and the Czech Republic sent heavy machine guns and ammunition.
The US military said earlier this year that a force of about 25,000 Iraqi soldiers take part in the battle for Mosul, and that it would start in April or May. That timeline now looks optimistic. Since then the Iraqi prime minister and Kurdish president have agreed to coordinate their forces, which will take time.
Sahr Muhammedally, senior program manager for the Middle East Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), a nongovernmental agency that works to prevent civilian casualties, says that despite all the coordinating and training, the stage is well set for more civilian casualties.
“For the coalition, the fight in Mosul will be the testing ground of their capabilities to minimize civilian harm. But urban warfare — particularly with airstrikes — poses significant risks to civilians and thus the coalition must have a plan in place to assist any civilians that may be harmed as a result of their operations,” she told GlobalPost.