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UK must not bomb civilian areas in Iraq

Today the UK Parliament will vote on whether or not to begin bombing Islamic State (IS) targets in Iraq. Prime Minister David Cameron has been championing British military action as part of an international coalition that has so far seen several militaries firing missiles and aerial bombs in an attempt to reverse a tide of militancy that has seen several major Iraqi and Syrian cities fall in recent months. With broad cross-party support and a three-line whip imposed on the 304 Conservative MPs to support the motion, it seems inevitable that within days the RAF will be launching air strikes in Iraq.

On 8 August the United States launched its first air strike in Iraq against militants affiliated with the Islamic State. The campaign, which the US says has been joined by at least 40 countries, has in recent days been expanded across the border into Syria. While intervention in Iraq comes at the invitation of a democratically-elected government, military engagement in Syria—a country that has been gripped by a brutal and bloody civil war since 2011 in which thousands of civilians have been killed, many by aerial bombing—is far more controversial.

While there have been almost 200 air strikes in Iraq to date, the first attacks to hit Syria have already led to several accusations of civilian casualties. Among the opening salvo on 23 September, a poultry farm in the village of Kafr Derian was bombed in Idlib province. The farm had reportedly been used as a weapons stockpile by Jahbat al-Nusra fighters, but was positioned within 100 metres of residential homes. At least ten civilians were killed. Casualty-counters the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) say that at least three children from the Barakat family died in the strike.

Syrian civilians have appealed to the US to avoid launching attacks in or near populated areas. “Please, please tell them to focus their strikes on their bases, not to hit civilian areas,” said one resident when asked. Iraq’s parliament speaker Salim al-Jabouri has similarly stated that air strikes must not kill civilians. “Random shelling that targets civilians is rejected by us, naturally, and is not considered as a constructive military practice,” Jabouri said. “Because civilians will receive the greatest degree of harm and in truth we will lose many lives and they will hate us more.” Civilian casualties will drastically undermine any continuing endorsement for air strikes in both Iraq and Syria.

Moreover this mission is mandated explicitly under the guise of protecting civilians. Using explosive weapons in populated areas will not fulfil this goal. It will undermine it. Iraqi civilians have suffered from daily explosive violence for years, and deserve not to suffer it further at the hands of people who claim to be acting on their behalf and in their interest.

The UK will almost certainly join international military action in Iraq within days. It must not add to the heavy burden from explosive weapons that civilians in the country are already having to pay. AOAV calls on the UK military to show the highest standards in refraining from launching air strikes in populated areas in Iraq.