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Thousands more civilians were killed in Mosul battle than official tally, AP finds

ISIS was driven out of Iraq's second largest city in July, but at a devastating cost, with great swaths of Mosul in ruins. A new report from the Associated Press puts the death toll between 9,000 and 11,000, a third of those reportedly killed by the U.S.-led coalition or Iraqi forces -- many more than the official figure. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Susannah George of the Associated Press.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The fight against is in Iraq was a years-long, brutal campaign.

    Now the toll taken by its most important battle is coming into detailed and horrific relief.

    Hari Sreenivasan has that from New York.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The battle for Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, began in October of last year.

    This past July, the militants were finally routed, but at a devastating cost. Great swathes of the city lay in ruins, and thousands died, civilians, soldiers, and ISIS fighters.

    At that time, special correspondent Marcia Biggs was there for us, witnessing the grim search for the dead.

    Here's a short excerpt of a report she filed.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    This is what so-called liberated Mosul looks and sounds like, in a small pocket of the Old City, the war against ISIS seemingly ongoing. And this is the Old City from ground level, a scene of utter devastation, entire neighborhoods flattened by coalition airstrikes, leaving the few survivors to search for the remains of their loved ones.

    Bashar and Ali's families were together in this house hit by an airstrike 28 days ago. Ali names the dead one by one.

  • Ali (through interpreter):

    My mother, three brothers, three sisters, my father, two sisters-in-law, two nieces.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    And you're the only one left from your family.

  • Ali (through interpreter):


  • Marcia Biggs:

    Shu Bedak Tamel, what are you going to do now?

  • Ali (through interpreter):

    What can I do? I just want to take the bodies out and bury them.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    That grim task of counting and burying the dead is now several months old. And the numbers of civilian dead is shocking.

    A new report from the Associated Press puts that toll, right now, between 9,000 and 11,000 killed in Mosul. The AP says roughly one-third were killed by the U.S.-led coalition or Iraqi forces. That's much higher than the coalition's official figure of 326 civilian deaths.

    For more on the AP's report, I'm joined now by one of its authors, Susannah George.

    Thanks for being with us.

    First, let's start with that number. How do we get such a big discrepancy? How did you go about counting it?

  • Susannah George:

    We spoke to half-a-dozen morgue and Ministry of Health officials in Mosul.

    We crossed-referenced a number of different databases that were kept by independent organizations and nongovernmental organizations, the United Nations, Amnesty International.

    And we pulled all these different lists together that we were able to get, lists of names of the dead, or death tolls from the morgue. Some were handwritten on pieces of paper. And we cross-referenced them and were able to come up with that range, from 9,000 to 11,000 civilians killed during the battle to retake Mosul.

    That's from October of 2016 until July of 2017, when the city was declared liberated.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, when these people at the morgue write down the name of a dead body, what do they say is the cause of death? And how do we figure out whether they were killed by ISIS or whether they were killed by airstrikes?

  • Susannah George:

    Well, that's something we had to rely on the morgue officials' knowledge of the cause of death for the civilians who — the bodies that they brought into their office. They have a small office in Eastern Mosul where they work out of.

    And they said that they made a judgment call for cause of death as the bodies came in. And the ones that they logged as killed by artillery or airstrikes, they were able to determine that by talking to family members who brought the dead into their office, and also by examining the body.

    Many of the bodies, they said, as the battle moved towards Western Mosul, the vast majority of the bodies that they were receiving at that time, they described as — the cause of death as simply that they were crushed from either an airstrike artillery or an I.S. car bomb or explosive caused the building to collapse on top of the civilians.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Give us context of what was happening in March in that last surge. Was there an opportunity for coalition forces to recognize that there were going to be an increased number of civilian casualties?

  • Susannah George:

    Well, what we saw there at the end of February and early March was something that we'd seen happen a few other times in the Mosul operation, was, as Iraqi forces were looking to speed up the progress on the ground to retake the city, there was a spike in civilian casualties.

    And most people know about it because of the March 17 coalition airstrike that resulted in more than 100 civilians dead. That's according to a Pentagon investigation into the incident.

    And when reports of that incident began to surface in late March, the entire Mosul operation was put on hold for a few weeks. And coalition officials told us at that time that — and a diplomat who was present during those meetings told us at that time that they were looking to completely change the way that they were fighting the battle, because the cost on civilian lives was too great.

    However, when we spoke to Iraqi officers on the ground who were actually leading the fight, they told us that they didn't receive any lasting change in guidelines of how to call in airstrikes or how to carry out the fight on the ground from their perspective.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    A few months ago, we saw in Marcia's story people going out and burying the dead. And, in your story, you actually — you show individuals that are going back and exhuming the bodies of their loved ones.

    What are they doing? Describe that.

  • Susannah George:

    Those were heart-wrenching scenes that we saw at the graveyards that are scattered around Western Mosul.

    Families had to exhume the bodies of their loved ones in order to get a Ministry of Health death certificate. That's a piece of paper that would entitle them to benefits from the state if their loved one was a member of the police or of the Iraqi security forces.

    And the families we spoke to in those graveyards said it was like reliving the tragedy of losing that loved one all over again, having to pull their body up from under the ground and having a Ministry of Health or morgue official examine it to corroborate what they believe was the cause of death for their loved one.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    One of the things you point out in your reporting is that this was not anywhere close to a comprehensive number, that there are still mass graves where people have not been identified, not to mention entire cities like Raqqa, where it could be worse.

  • Susannah George:

    Yes, there's thousands of people who are believed to be in these mass graves that are dotted around Mosul, the largest of which is just south of Mosul's Western half, Hasfa.

    And it also — our toll also doesn't include the people who died who were not from Mosul. I.S., as the caliphate, the physical caliphate collapsed, I.S. herded thousands of civilians with them into Mosul from neighboring provinces.

    If there was a civilian who was from a neighboring province, not from Nineveh province, which is where Mosul is located, their death wouldn't have been recorded in the morgue and Ministry of Health documents that we examined as part of this investigation.

    So, this is very much a minimum. That range of 9,000 to 11,000 is, we believe, a minimum. There's still hundreds of people who are still believed to be buried under the rubble of the Old City that endured some of the greatest destruction in the fight to retake the city.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Susannah George of the Associated Press, thanks so much.

  • Susannah George:

    Thank you.

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