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Rescue workers find 101 bodies in Mosul building destroyed in alleged U.S.-led strike

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 27/03/2017 Loveday Morris and Mustafa Salim
Iraqi civilians and rescue workers inspect the damage in Mosul's al-Jadida area on Sunday, following air strikes in which civilians have been reportedly killed during an ongoing offensive against the Islamic State. Iraq is investigating air strikes in west Mosul that reportedly killed large numbers of civilians in recent days, a military spokesman said. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images © Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images Iraqi civilians and rescue workers inspect the damage in Mosul's al-Jadida area on Sunday, following air strikes in which civilians have been reportedly killed during an ongoing offensive against the Islamic State. Iraq is investigating air strikes in west Mosul that reportedly killed large numbers of civilians in recent days, a military spokesman said. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

IRBIL, Iraq — Rescue workers said Sunday they had finished extracting more than 100 bodies from the ruins of a house in Mosul where the U.S.-led coalition is alleged to have carried out an airstrike. 

The remains of 101 people had been recovered from the rubble by the end of the day, said Col. Safaa Saadi, a civil defense official on the scene. Families may have also removed “a few” bodies from the wrecked building themselves without registering them, he said. 

The civil defense teams are still working to clear other houses in the decimated neighborhood, where residents say some families were wiped out during a heavy bombardment involving coalition airstrikes and artillery as Iraqi forces advanced. 

The U.S.-led coalition has acknowledged that it carried out an airstrike against Islamic State fighters at the location corresponding to the allegations of civilian casualties, but it is still investigating the incident. The militants positioned snipers on rooftops and forced civilians to stay in the area as they battled advancing forces, residents said. 

Local officials have accused both the coalition and the Iraqi forces they are backing of acting with recklessness as they advance on the western side of the city, which is densely inhabited. Police forces have been using heavy artillery, and accusations of civilian casualties in U.S.-strikes since President Trump took office have raised questions about whether the new administration is fulfilling his pledge to ramp up the campaign against the Islamic State at the expense of civilians. 

“We request that when they do an airstrike they presume that there are civilians in these houses,” said Hussam al-Abar, a provincial council member. “They can’t just drop a half-ton bomb to kill a sniper when there may be a family inside.”

Basma Baseem, the head of Mosul’s local council, said that “senior security leaders” had issued an order banning her from entering western Mosul after she showed “the real image of the destruction caused by the international coalition.” 

She compared the devastation in the neighborhood to that of Kobane in Syria, which was left in ruins after Kurdish forces backed by coalition airstrikes retook the town in 2015.  

Iraq’s joint operations command offered an alternative account of events Sunday, as security forces barred Baseem and journalists from entering the area after publicizing the strike.

In its statement, the command said that the damage to the house was caused by Islamic State fighters who had booby-trapped it after moving civilians inside. It said military experts had inspected the house.

“There doesn’t seem to be hole or indication that it was subjected to an airstrike,” the statement said.

However, Mosul’s civil defense chief, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Mahmoud, insisted that the damage was consistent with an airstrike. A burned room at the back where the bodies of several women were found was probably where the missile hit, he said. 

Iraqi military commanders had initially said that the damage was caused when a missile hit a car bomb. The house is down a side street, and there is no crater in the road consistent with a car bomb.

Residents said there was a car bomb that day, but on the main thoroughfare of the market. 

It is unclear if all the 101 bodies recovered from the building are civilians, or if militants are among them. Saadi said that one found wearing an ammunition belt was not included in the count, but it is difficult to ascertain if other male bodies belonged to militants or civilians. He said women and children had been pulled from the wreckage, but he didn’t have a breakdown for those killed. 

The area was one with a high militant presence and an Islamic State headquarters nearby. A neighboring house belonging to an Islamic State fighter who was killed along with his wife and two children was also destroyed, Saadi said. Weapons were also found in the wreckage, he added.

Residents said most of the families sheltering in the house had moved there from other neighborhoods and that it was one of the few in the area with a basement. 

Iraqi commanders say that the militants are increasingly using civilians as human shields, packing them into buildings that they are using as weapons storage facilities or as headquarters.

Col. Joseph Scrocca, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, said the coalition does all it can to reduce civilian casualties but that it would not abandon its commitment to Iraq even as Islamic State militants are using human shields and fighting from civilian neighborhoods.

Civilian casualties “have taken away from the joy of victory for Mosul,” said the province’s governor, Nawfal al-Agoub. “What we want from the coalition is for them not to repeat their mistakes and to be more cautious and accurate.”

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