Erbil, Kurdish region in Northern Iraq – Rights groups and charities have raised questions about the U.S. military coordinates for civil damage in Iraq and Syria, released last week by British watchdog Airwars.
In a data-sharing agreement that the nonprofit referred to as a “landmark decision by the US-led coalition,” Airwars released the geographic coordinates of 341 confirmed incidents of civil harm and approximately 1,400 civilian deaths since the war on ISIL (ISIS )) started six years ago.
During the campaign to recapture the IS-occupied areas in Iraq and Syria, the fighting over Mosul and Raqqa marked the height of destruction and civilian casualties.
Airwars estimated that more than 13,000 non-combatants were killed in the campaign as a result of the coalition’s actions since 2014. The coalition estimates that number at just 1,410.
Once important commercial and cultural centers in the region, the two cities were razed to the ground by coalition air strikes in the name of liberation. According to the United Nations, much of the old town of Mosul and 70 percent of Raqqa were destroyed.
A flyer image released by the Department of Defense shows a US Navy F-18E Super Hornets formation over northern Iraq on Sept. 23, 2014 [File: Shawn Nickel/ US Air Force via EPA]The data provided by Airwars said that 70 of the 341 credible incidents were located with an accuracy of one square meter (10.8 square feet), leaving little margin for error. The remaining 271, however, are accurate to 100 m².
“The coalition has the 1-square-meter coordinates of all events that it has deemed believable, although more recently it has chosen to withhold this more accurate data publicly. We don’t know why and it’s up to OIR to explain their reasoning, ”Airwars director Chris Woods told Al Jazeera.
OIR refers to the combined joint task forces – Operation Inherent Resolve, as the US-led coalition against ISIL is officially known.
The withholding of more accurate data raised eyebrows in an aerial campaign described by the UK State Department as “the most accurate in the history of warfare”.
“Either the coalition does not have the specific coordinates of the buildings they are bombing, which would be very worrying, or they do and we assume they do. Why are they not providing them?” asked Amnesty International’s senior crisis adviser Donatella Rovera.
“It has to do with liability, not wanting to take responsibility.”
The devil in the details: activists
In populated areas like Raqqa and Mosul, 100 meters (328 feet) could be “the distance between a legitimate military target and a school or apartment building,” said Iain Overton of the London-based charity Action on Armed to Monitor Explosive Violence Violence (AOAV ).
While Amnestys Rovera does not reject the Airwars results, it argues that “if the data is incorrect, there is little you can do with it”.
Over the years, rights groups and watchdogs have worked on site, providing the coalition with the exact coordinates of their air strikes.
The coalition’s only known soil survey followed the attack by al-Jadida Mosul in March 2017, which killed more than 140 civilians.
“To determine whether a strike is lawful, you need to have the exact location to analyze what happened to that strike,” said Rovera. “One hundred meter radius coordinates are not useful.”
Airwars director Woods disagrees. “Even location data within a 100-meter box has significant value, so affected families can determine whether or not loved ones were likely to have been harmed in a particular incident in a particular neighborhood.”
However, even “accuracy” could be an ambiguous term, especially when a war is taking place in dense areas and, as with ISIL, the enemy hiding among civilians.
“ONE [lawful] The target could be hit, but the extent to which 500 pound bombs can be accurate is misleading, ”said AOAV’s Overton.
AOAV’s data on explosive weapons for over a decade worldwide has shown that “when explosive weapons are used with widespread impact in populated areas, over 90 percent of those reported killed or injured in English-language media have been repeatedly and routinely civilians,” Overton. “No amount of ‘accuracy’ changes this repeated truth.”
A U.S. Air Force pilot grabs a flight controller and shooting stick as he prepares to access an MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) from a ground control station at a classified air base in the Arabian Gulf region on Jan. 7, 2016 start [File: John Moore/Getty Images]
Closure through compensation?
Ali al-Baroodi, who lives in Mosul, knows this only too well. The battle to retake Mosul had lasted a little over a month when he was thrown through his bedroom by an explosion.
Nearby, an air strike targeted ISIL vehicles as they moved from one neighborhood to another.
The attack lasted 16 hours, wounded al-Baroodi’s brother and damaged her home.
According to the AOAV, 75 percent of the people killed or injured in air strikes on Mosul were civilians.
In addition to loved ones, hundreds of thousands lost their livelihoods and homes. So far, only six Iraqis and one Syrian have received ex gratia payments (or condolences) – a way for the US to hold no liability for property damage, injuries or death.
According to Airwars, the release of the data “may help open the door to possible civil damage recovery from US and coalition actions in Iraq and Syria.”
“It’s never enough,” said Al Baroodi on the phone from his Mosul home.
“Pay without admitting the excessive violence was not justified – use heavy artillery to bombard an ancient city that was very densely populated.”
But even those who were hoping for financial support after the loss of homes and relatives were refused by the coalition.
In January, Human Rights Watch told the story of Shadia, who lost loved ones when a week-long military campaign destroyed a boarding school and other buildings near Raqqa.
The US concluded that 40 civilians were killed in a raid, including Shadia’s relatives.
The US Department of Defense responded to a request for ex gratia payments for Shadia’s family: “Prior to the airstrike, CJTF-OIR took substantial precautions to assess the risk of civilian casualties and other collateral damage and assessed the presence of Civilians families. Although the result was tragic, US forces have complied with martial law. “
Meanwhile, civilians in Iraq and Syria are rebuilding their lives disrupted by the war against ISIL that is haunted by his memories.
“I can pay a million dollars, just let them take the noise and the memory,” said al-Baroodi from Mosul. “The dust and the blood and how my nephews and nieces huddled over their father.”