ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Amnesty International said on Tuesday it had identified a pattern of attacks by Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led military coalition backing them in the battle for Mosul that violated international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes.
The rights group said in a report that the Islamic State militant group had flagrantly violated that same law by deliberately putting civilians in harm’s way to shield their fighters and impede the advance of Iraqi and coalition forces.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in Mosul on Monday, three years after Islamic State seized the city and made it the stronghold of a “caliphate” they said would take over the world.
A 100,000-strong alliance of Iraqi government units, Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Shi‘ite militias had launched the offensive in October, with key air and ground support from the international coalition.
Much of Mosul has been destroyed in grinding street-to-street fighting, thousands of civilians have been killed and nearly a million people fled their homes, according to the United Nations.
Amnesty said Iraqi forces and the coalition carried out a series of unlawful attacks in west Mosul since January, relying heavily on Improvised Rocket Assisted Munitions (IRAMs), explosive weapons with crude targeting capabilities that wreaked havoc in densely populated areas.
“Even in attacks that seem to have struck their intended military target, the use of unsuitable weapons or failure to take other necessary precautions resulted in needless loss of civilian lives and in some cases appears to have constituted disproportionate attacks,” the report said.
Neither the Iraqi defence ministry nor coalition officials were immediately available to comment on the Amnesty report.
Amnesty also slammed Islamic State for a host of crimes that have been documented previously.
The militants rounded up residents in contested villages and neighbourhoods and forced them to move into conflict zones in west Mosul for use as human shields, it said. As clashes neared, they trapped the civilians inside houses without access to food or medical care, it said.
The militants also fought and hid among the population.
Islamic State summarily killed hundreds, if not thousands, of men, women and children who attempted to flee and hanged their bodies in public areas, according to the report.
Amnesty acknowledged the challenges of protecting civilians given the militants’ tactics, but still blamed Iraqi authorities and the coalition for failing to take feasible precautions to protect civilians from air strikes. It said leaflet drops warning of attacks had been virtually useless because Islamic State heavily restricted civilian movement.
Neither the government nor the coalition keep track of civilian deaths. Amnesty said the toll just in west Mosul from attacks launched by pro-government forces was very likely higher than the 3,706 estimated by monitoring group Airwars.
“The true death toll of the west Mosul battle may never be known,” it said.
Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Paul Tait