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Uncovering the hidden civilian casualties of the UK’s air war in Mosul – a review of the Guardian/AirWars investigation

In a recent exposé, The Guardian and Airwars teamed up to investigate the UK’s involvement in the 2016 battle for Mosul, specifically examining the claim that their campaign resulted in zero civilian casualties. Despite the Ministry of Defence’s assertion of a flawless campaign, newly released declassified transcripts of conversations between drone pilots point to a different reality. Their investigation, alongside AOAV’s own work showing that at least 29 civilians have died following RAF air strikes under Operation Shader, uncovers the untold victims of the UK’s war across Iraq and Syria and raises questions about the true cost of the conflict.

The city of Mosul was – in 2016 – a significant target for the Islamic State, given its rich history and diverse population. The battle for Mosul marked a turning point in the conflict, with Western forces, including the UK, providing air support for the Iraqi and Kurdish fighters in a major offensive to reclaim the city. The campaign became a gruelling urban warfare, with civilians caught in the crossfire, ISIS using booby traps and homemade bombs, and Western forces employing mostly air power.

Coalition forces acknowledged the killing of 455 civilians, but the UK maintained that its forces caused no civilian casualties, despite dropping hundreds or possibly thousands of bombs. Indeed, in all their air strikes over Iraq and Syria they only claimed to have killed one civilian, despite thousands of militants said to have been killed.

This claim has been met with scepticism and disbelief, including from retired Air Marshal Greg Bagwell, a former senior British military official, who suggested that a 90% success rate in protecting civilians would be more realistic.

Indeed, AOAV’s own data on explosive violence in towns and cities has shown that – when such weapons are used in populated areas – over 90% of those killed or injured have been civilians.

To investigate the UK RAF’s claim, The Guardian and Airwars looked at over 1,300 documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request by researcher Azmat Khan. The documents contained details and transcripts of investigations into civilian casualties caused by drone operators, with the responsible countries redacted. By cross-referencing this information with British military updates on airstrikes and targets in Mosul, the investigation aimed to identify British airstrikes that may have caused civilian casualties.

The team then traveled to Mosul to investigate specific cases, finding discrepancies between the coalition’s claims and the actual sites hit. In one instance, the supposed target was a car bomb factory, but the investigation found an empty wasteland. They also located families affected by the strikes through social media groups and interviews, personalizing the impact of the war.

One such family was the Door family, who lost multiple family members in a British airstrike. The investigators found that the coalition claimed to have targeted a car bomb factory, but the family lived in an area too narrow for such a factory to exist. Neighbours confirmed that Islamic State fighters were actually on a nearby rooftop. The grief and trauma of the incident continue to affect the Door family.

Another case involved a woman named Bader, who lost her husband and two children in a strike. The journalist Emma Graham-Harrison visited the ruins of her family’s home, where Bader powerfully expressed her grief and trauma. The details of the airstrike did not match the coalition’s claims of hitting an improvised explosive device (IED) factory. Bader and her family have received neither compensation nor acknowledgement for their loss. This raises questions about the possibility of similar cases going unacknowledged and uncompensated.

The investigation revealed inconsistencies in the coalition’s position on civilian casualties. While some countries, such as the US, have accepted responsibility for civilian deaths, the numbers they report are likely underestimated. Other countries have taken some responsibility, but not to the extent that many believe is necessary. The UK and a few other nations, however, seem to adopt a “bury our head in the sand” approach to civilian casualties.

The Guardian and Airwars’ investigation not only challenges the UK’s claim of a flawless campaign but also highlights the human cost of the battle for Mosul. The stories of the Door family and Bader provide a personal perspective on the devastation wrought by the airstrikes. Their accounts raise important questions about the accuracy of the coalition’s claims, the need for transparency and accountability, and the responsibility of involved nations to acknowledge and compensate the civilian victims of the conflict.

Ultimately, the investigation serves as a stark reminder of the harsh realities of war and the need for a more honest and forthcoming approach when dealing with civilian casualties. The UK’s insistence on maintaining a narrative of zero civilian casualties risks undermining the credibility of its military operations and perpetuating a lack of accountability for the true costs of armed conflict.

AOAV, and many other members of civili society such as Every Casualty Counts, argue that it is crucial to reassess how nations report and address the impact of their actions on innocent civilians, ensuring that lessons are learned and future tragedies are minimised.