The Guardian, in partnership with non-profit watchdog Airwars, has conducted an investigation into the 2016-17 British airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. The investigation has revealed that multiple airstrikes that killed civilians during the campaign are probably linked to UK forces, despite longstanding claims by the British government and military that British weapons did not harm a single non-combatant there.
The UK government has for years stood by the claim that in terms of protecting ordinary Iraqis, the UK fought a “perfect” war against IS militants in Iraq. Allies in the US-led coalition, including Washington, have, however, admitted killing hundreds of civilians in Iraq while supporting Iraqi ground troops in the period after 2014.
The Guardian investigation identified six strikes in the Iraqi city of Mosul that killed civilians and appear to have been carried out by British forces in 2016 and 2017. Victims of two suspected British strikes have described for the first time the deaths and injuries of children, parents, brothers, and sisters in missile attacks that devastated their families. One survivor lost her eldest daughter when a missile exploded near them in a Mosul street. She had to have both her legs amputated. A second daughter still has shrapnel in her skull, and her son, just a toddler at the time, lost parts of a foot and hand. Another woman lost almost all her immediate family, including her mother, father, two siblings, and two nephews when a missile destroyed their home.
The US-led coalition has accepted civilian casualties from both airstrikes, but has not identified which country fired the weapons. In total, across the six strikes in Mosul that were identified by the Guardian and Airwars as likely to have been British attacks, the coalition accepts killing 26 civilians.
The UK Ministry of Defence declined to confirm or deny whether the specific strikes were conducted by its forces and maintained that British troops did not kill or harm civilians in Iraq. “There is no evidence or indication that civilian casualties were caused by strikes in Syria and Iraq,” a spokesperson said. “The UK always minimizes the risk of civilian casualties through our rigorous processes and carefully examines a range of evidence to do this, including comprehensive analysis of the mission data for every strike.”
The investigation is likely to put increased pressure on the British authorities over their opaque policies for assessing civilian casualties. The 2016 Chilcot report into the UK’s role in the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq found that the UK did not do enough to locate civilians killed and injured. Its recommendations included improving this, saying that “a government has a responsibility to make every reasonable effort to understand the likely and actual effects of its military actions on civilians.”
However, in the next British campaign in Iraq, the UK was no more transparent. The government has refused to detail even how it assesses reported casualties, despite requests from MPs. The new findings are likely to put additional pressure on the UK authorities to be more transparent about their policies for assessing civilian casualties.
The investigation identified 43 airstrikes resulting in civilian casualties, where details pointed towards British involvement. These were narrowed down further by looking at information such as target types, munitions, and specific location to give a shortlist of eight strikes. The Guardian and Airwars then traveled to Mosul to look for survivors.
This is far from a comprehensive account of potential British casualties in Mosul, but it raises serious questions about the government’s position. Even former British military officials have said the UK position was unconvincing. Greg Bagwell, a retired air marshal, told the Guardian that Britain had some of the best systems in the world to protect civilians, but the current position that the UK had made no targeting errors was “a stretch”.
“If we were saying we were 90% better than everyone else [at
protecting civilians], that might be a credible argument. When you keep saying the number is zero and therefore we’re 100% perfect, it clearly becomes hard to sell that,” he said.
The UK began bombing Iraq again in 2014, as part of the Operation Inherent Resolve coalition targeting IS fighters. Strikes in Syria began a year later. Between 2014 and 2020, it dropped more than 4,000 munitions in the two countries. The British military claims those strikes killed 3,052 militants in Iraq without causing a single civilian death. In Syria, the UK claims 1,017 fighters were killed and one civilian.
However, the US-led coalition, which included Britain, has said airstrikes by its members killed 1,437 civilians during that period but did not break down which countries were responsible. In 2018, a senior coalition source told the BBC that British officials had been told multiple times their strikes may have killed civilians and that “to suggest they have not…is nonsense.”
To investigate which deaths might have been caused by British airstrikes, The Guardian and Airwars combed through public statements and information from both sides of the Atlantic, including 1,300 coalition documents detailing individual cases of civilian casualties released by the US military in December 2021 after a freedom of information request from The New York Times.
These were cross-referenced against regular Ministry of Defence updates on strikes, and the dates and locations of all attacks in which the UK military claimed it killed or injured IS fighters, which were released to Airwars after freedom of information requests. This identified 43 airstrikes resulting in civilian casualties, where details pointed towards British involvement. These were narrowed down further by looking at information such as target types, munitions, and specific location to give a shortlist of eight strikes. The Guardian and Airwars then traveled to Mosul to look for survivors.
The investigation has revealed previously unacknowledged victims whose lives were torn apart by British airstrikes in Mosul. It raises serious questions about the UK’s claims that it fought a “perfect” war against IS militants in Iraq and highlights the need for increased transparency in assessing civilian casualties in conflict zones. Even if Britain eventually accepts responsibility for the killings, survivors are unlikely to be able to seek compensation. A law passed in 2021 sets a six-year limit on any claim for damages; that period has already passed.
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