The date was March 17, 2017. Troops from the US-led coalition fighting jihadists in Iraq were pushing their way into Mosul’s Old City, squeezing out the Islamic State group.
However, just months before the city’s recapture, where IS declared its caliphate in 2014, a new human toll was added to the growing tragedy when it was revealed that more than 100 civilians had been killed in a single coalition air strike.
The coalition has now admitted that over 1,000 civilians were killed during the seven-year operation in Iraq and Syria against the jihadist group.
Abdullah Khalil is still waiting for compensation four years after the carnage from which he miraculously escaped alive with his son. His leg was amputated at the knee, and he has deep welts and burn scars on his back.
But he’s still looking for information on where and how to file a claim for any damages owed to him.
There were no commanders on the ground handing out “blood money” to bereaved families in the war against IS in Iraq, which the coalition fought primarily from the air, as has been the case in other Western operations elsewhere.
The explosion and collapse of the building where he had been hiding with dozens of women, men, and children resulted in the highest single civilian death toll in the fight against ISIS.
The shock was overwhelming for Iraqis. However, it was quickly overtaken by the general chaos. Hundreds more civilians were killed in Mosul fighting in the 72 hours before, during, and after that single strike.
It is frequently difficult to pinpoint the source of the attacks: in this city of over two million people, jihadists used hundreds of thousands of trapped civilians as human shields. Iraqi troops opened fire at will, jihadists retaliated in force, and coalition planes bombed the city mercilessly.
Iraqi troops were attempting to advance through the Old City’s narrow alleyways on March 17, 2017, five months to the day after the start of the last major battle to recapture Mosul.
The Mosul al-Jadidah district, with its railway station and fuel silos, awaited them to the west. Shots were fired from there, apparently by two snipers squatting on a residential building’s rooftop.
But they were missing an important piece of information: dozens of civilians were huddled together in the basement of the building, praying that the nearby Rahma hospital and a busy street would keep international aircraft from firing on the area.
Faced with international condemnation, the US dispatched investigators into the field for the first and only time in the long battle against IS in Iraq and Syria.
Witnesses and survivors in Mosul are adamant that no weapons arsenal was stored in the building, and the US army provides no proof, basing its conclusion solely on theoretical calculations of the load required to bring the building down.
But, even before they launched their campaign against the Islamic State, which at its peak controlled a third of Iraq, large swaths of Syria, and carried out attacks in the heart of Europe, the 75 coalition nations had made a decision.
When the coalition to fight IS was formed, there was a “specific decision” not to create a coalition-wide compensation policy, “because they did not want to spend money on that,” according to Belkis Wille, former senior Iraq researcher for HRW.
And, to make matters even more difficult for victims already trying to figure out which plane dropped which bomb, strikes were frequently carried out jointly by multiple countries.
The Americans quickly admitted they had acted alone in Mosul al-Jadidah, even if they did not accept responsibility for the building’s collapse.
However, coalition spokesman US Colonel Wayne Marotto stated that “US domestic law and the law of war do not require the United States to assume liability and compensate individuals for injuries to their person or personal property caused by lawful combat operations.” This is true in any country where the US has a presence.