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AOAV urges caution as US bombs Iraq

The US has today launched an airstrike in Iraq. American officials say that 500-lb laser-guided bombs were dropped on mobile artillery used by Islamic militants in the north of the country.

The decision to authorise air strikes was announced by President Obama on Thursday. The UK has welcomed the US decision but is ruling out military action itself. Both governments have been explicit in linking the authorisation of air strikes to the protection of civilians. To that end, AOAV urges the US to take every precaution to avoid deploying explosive weapons in populated areas.

Explosive weapons all project blast and fragmentation from around a point of detonation. These weapons, which include aerial bombs, rockets and missiles, can have wide area effects. They can kill and injure anyone in their midst. When used in populated areas, they consistently cause high levels of civilian suffering.

The Iraqi air force has already been launching air strikes in recent months as they attempt to regain control of cities seized by militants affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). Syria has also reportedly bombed border towns, meaning the US is now the third different country to launch air strikes in the country this year.

AOAV, who monitors the impact of explosive weapons worldwide from English-language media sources, has recorded 869 casualties from air strikes in Iraq this year (January to June).

More than 300 of these (41%) were civilians. In the 18 separate aerial attacks that AOAV recorded in the first six months of 2014, seven took place in populated areas such as markets and fuel stations.

When air strikes have been launched in populated areas, 56% of the resulting casualties were civilians, compared to just 3% in other areas.

This is not to suggest that the US will necessarily follow the same patterns as those already seen in the country. If this feels like a flashback to ten years ago, then it should be recognised that the circumstances are very different now, and the expectation should be that the conduct of US forces will likewise be radically altered.

This must be a far cry from “Shock and Awe” tactics in 2003. It is encouraging to see the emphasis in the US being on avoiding civilian casualties and the extent to which this desire seems to be reflected within operational planning. Obama has been clear that there will be no boots on the ground, and that bombing Iraq cannot put the country together again. Yet civilian casualties can arise from the most targeted of air strikes, as in Yemen last December. The US should refrain from bombing populated areas in Iraq.

For the first time in years Iraq’s civilians face the threat of being bombed from the sky. It is important to note of course that even now air strikes still account for a relatively small percentage of the suffering caused by explosive weapons in Iraq. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have been driving staggering casualty totals for years in the country, and according to AOAV’s data have steadily climbed in their impact in the last three years.

Iraq’s civilians have been forced to live with the daily threat of explosive violence from all directions for many years. In its efforts to act on their behalf, the US must be careful not to add to their terrible burden.