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What we know about the deadly air assault on Mosul

March 27, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
In the U.S.-led coalition fight against the Islamic State group, a airstrike in mid-March reportedly left more than 100 civilians dead in Western Mosul. John Yang speaks with Loveday Morris of The Washington Post about the strike and how brutal fighting is affecting civilians.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: A bombing in Iraq by the American-led military coalition leaves scores dead.

John Yang has that.

JOHN YANG: The airstrike took place in the Al Jadida neighborhood of Western Mosul amid pitched fighting between ISIS militants and Iraqi government forces. The reports from the scene are gruesome, more than 100 dead.

For more on this incident and the brutal battle there, I’m joined from Irbil in Northern Iraq via Skype by Loveday Morris of The Washington Post.

Loveday, thanks for joining us. I know it’s very late there.

It’s been 10 days since this incident took place. The Pentagon said the air assault took place on March 17. What do we know about what happened?

LOVEDAY MORRIS, The Washington Post: What happened was, Iraqi forces were advancing into the area at the time with an ISIS-held area.

It was one where residents say that there were a lot of ISIS fighters fighting from the rooftops, and they were sheltering in their homes. And as the Iraqi forces advanced, there was heavy bombardment on this neighborhood.

And there are allegations of actually multiple buildings hit by U.S. airstrikes, but that one particular building where they have pulled out more than 100 bodies, 101 bodies now, and that’s an alleged site of one of the strikes.

JOHN YANG: But the Iraqis are saying that it was booby-trapped by ISIS.

LOVEDAY MORRIS: Yes, that’s right. They said they have made an initial investigation, and this particular building was booby-trapped by ISIS.

Initially, commanders blamed it on an ISIS car bomb, the collapse. There have been several conflicting stories. Iraqi civil defense, the rescue workers who are pulling the bodies out of the building, they say they’re experts in building collapses, and they say this was caused by an airstrikes.

And the U.S. coalition has said that it carried out a strike at the location of accusations of mass civilian casualties.

JOHN YANG: We have seen this fighting around Mosul really intensify.

President Trump had said he wanted give commanders in the field more flexibility. What do we know about the rules covering airstrikes like these? Have they changed since President Trump came into office?

LOVEDAY MORRIS: What we hear on the U.S. side and from the coalition is, no, there’s been no change at all for the rules of engagement so far.

The Iraqis are saying that as well. Official, there’s no change to the rules of engagement. There does seem to be some speeding of the process of calling in airstrikes. They have made the process faster. They have put U.S. forward air controllers closer to Mosul.

But it’s really unclear what exactly is causing this. And there has been a spike now in civilian casualty accusations both in Iraq and Syria.

JOHN YANG: And this is in Mosul, some of the most intense urban fighting, street-to-street, house-to-house. What is the impact on the civilian population?

LOVEDAY MORRIS: It’s a huge impact. You have a huge amount of ordnance flying into that city, not just from airstrikes, but from artillery.

And, obviously, ISIS also uses heavy weaponry and booby-traps. Really, you talk to civilians that are coming out of Mosul, they have been in their basements for weeks on end. They’re absolutely terrified. ISIS are using their rooftops and make them keep their front doors open.

So, they’re very scared of airstrikes on their own houses while they’re hiding inside. People are coming out, and, yes, a horrific state. There’s very little food, water inside. The area is under siege. It’s a terrible situation for civilians.

JOHN YANG: Are they able to flee?

LOVEDAY MORRIS: Some are. Some aren’t. I mean, they normally can’t flee until the Iraqi security forces get to their area.

What has happened, in some cases, ISIS will send a wave of civilians out. They will order them to leave their homes. The Iraqis will have to hold fire if there’s a big wave of civilians coming out. It really slows them down.

So, sometimes, people come out like that. Other times, ISIS keep them in, keeps them blocked in their neighborhood to use as human shields. And, in that case, I mean, any time people are coming out, they’re always caught in very dangerous crossfire. You have snipers. You have mortars. Yes, it’s tough for people to get out, for sure.

JOHN YANG: Loveday Morris, The Washington Post, from Irbil, thanks for joining us, and be safe.

LOVEDAY MORRIS: Thank you.

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