The Battle for Mosul: Who are the Good Guys?


I know I have been going on and on about war in the Middle East, particularly the wars in Iraq.  My American friend got me going on these thoughts when he said if he was President he would “take out Iran.” That sounds so simple.

Ben Taub in his New Yorker article described the battle to retake Mosul from ISIS as the” most intense urban combat since the Second World War.”  One of the interesting things about that battle was that the brutal ISIS fighters were often seen as preferable to the U.S. supported Iraqi security. As Taub said,

“They told us that the Iraqi security forces would kill the men and rape the women,” a young woman from the village of Shirqat told me… “We trusted ISIS more than the Iraqi state.”

Of course that did not end brutality by ISIS. As Taub reported,

“We trusted ISIS more than the Iraqi state.” Other villagers, who had spent years awaiting liberation, were loaded onto buses at gunpoint by ISIS fighters, and packed into Mosul’s front-line neighborhoods, to be used as human shields. In the ensuing months, the jihadis murdered hundreds of people who tried to escape, and hung bodies from electrical pylons.”

 Mosul was a very difficult place to fight a war. After all it was an old city. The west part of the city was particularly difficult because it was so densely packed with narrow streets and alleyways. As Taub said,

“The coalition concluded that the Old City could not be captured according to the rules of engagement that had governed the battle in East Mosul, so it loosened its requirements for calling in an air strike. In March, the U.S. dropped a five-hundred-pound bomb on a roof in the Old City, in an effort to kill two ISIS snipers. The explosion killed a hundred and five civilians who had been sheltering inside the building. Survivors reported that there were no ISIS fighters in the vicinity at the time of the strike.” Who thinks this makes sense?

There is only one question that is really pertinent here: “Who are the good guys?”  After all this was “our side.” Our side is always the good guy right?

Of course both sides were guilty to atrocities. ISIS fighters killed thousands, so the Iraqi forces retaliated in kind.  Taub described it this way:

“By early July, ISIS fighters had killed thousands of government troops and police officers, and Iraqi commanders were under enormous pressure to finish the battle. The next few weeks were a bloodbath. ISIS fighters who surrendered were executed on the spot. Iraqi security forces filmed themselves hurling captives off a cliff, then shooting them as they lay dying on the rocks below. Helicopters buzzed the Tigris, bombing people as they tried to swim across. The troops assumed that anyone still living in the Old City sided with the Islamic State. For the rest of the month, corpses bobbed downstream, dressed in civilian clothes. “We killed them all—Daesh, men, women, and children,” an Iraqi Army officer told a Middle Eastern news site, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. As he spoke, his colleagues dragged a suspect through the streets by a rope tied around his neck. “We are doing the same thing as ISIS. People went down to the river to get water, because they were dying of thirst, and we killed them.” When the battle was over, soldiers used construction equipment to shovel rubble into the entrances of ISIS tunnels—ostensibly to suffocate any remaining jihadis, but also to mingle corpses and concrete, thereby obscuring the scale of the atrocities. As late as March of this year, journalists were still finding the bodies of women and children on the riverbanks, blindfolded, with their hands tied behind their backs and bullet holes in their skulls.

When the battle was over the Old City of Mosul was in ruins.  According to the UN, besides the dead and wounded, the battle for Mosul has left behind around ten million tons of rubble. Many of those destroyed buildings were continuously inhabited from the 7th century until July 2017. Of course the greatest losses were suffered by people.

The brutality of ISIS forces is well known and for good reason. The brutality of coalition forces, supported by the US and Britain are less well known. As Taub reported,

“In October, 2016, Iraqi security forces filmed themselves executing a captive in Qayyarah, an hour south of Mosul. They also tied the bodies of several dead ISIS fighters to the back of a Nissan pickup truck and dragged them through Qayyarah’s main road, while villagers cheered; children kicked the corpses, and a man stood on one of the bodies, surfing. According to Human Rights Watch, which obtained thirteen videos from the scene, a man from a nearby village came to Qayyarah after hearing that the man who had killed his father and three of his uncles was among the dead fighters. He beheaded the man and cut out his heart, then presented it as a gift to his mother.”

Little wonder that coalition forces tried their best to conceal the casualties:

“The coalition has acknowledged a civilian death toll in the low hundreds. But the West Mosul civil defense has retrieved thousands of corpses from the Old City. Last December, the Associated Press obtained a list of nearly ten thousand civilians whose bodies had been registered at the local morgue. Most had been crushed to death by falling concrete; for others, the cause of death had been entered into the morgue’s database simply as “blown to pieces.” (Thomas Veale, a U.S. Army colonel and a spokesman for the coalition, told the A.P. that it was “irresponsible” to draw attention to civilian casualties in West Mosul. If not for the coalition’s campaign, he said, Iraqis would have suffered years of “needless death and mutilation” at the hands of “terrorists who lack any ethical or moral standards.)”

Are we to believe that “our side” is ethical and moral?  The evidence clearly does not support that assumption.

Ben Taub did not mince words in his description of Iraqi forces and Iraqi people:

“Elsewhere in Iraq, security forces filmed themselves punching, kicking, and whipping men in ad-hoc detention sites, including school classrooms. They dragged suspects by the hair, stepped on their heads, slammed knees into their faces, and threw furniture at them. They beat people unconscious; they beat people to death. They filmed themselves gunning down captives in open fields and stabbing them in the face with knives. A group of Hashd members struggled to interrogate six foreign fighters who couldn’t speak Arabic; in the end, they shot them, doused them in gasoline, and lit them on fire—including two who were still alive. A federal police officer filmed himself beheading captives, including minors, and posted the videos to his Facebook account. He told a Swedish reporter that he had decapitated fifty people so far, all while they were still alive; as he paraded through the streets holding severed heads aloft, other uniformed police officers and soldiers cheered and marched alongside him. All through northern and western Iraq, anti- ISIS forces kept lists of people they wanted to kill. They hung bodies from telephone poles, and encouraged civilians to desecrate the corpses of their former jihadi oppressors. The irony was not lost on the killers—they knew that they were mirroring the Islamic State’s worst acts.” 

The Iraqi government has sought to minimize attention to such atrocities. Haider al-Abadi, who served as Prime Minister between 2014 and October, 2018, dismissed them as “individual acts” for which the perpetrators would be held to account. But there have been no meaningful investigations. According to the senior Iraqi intelligence official, “all Hashd violations are carried out with the knowledge and approval of the national-security apparatus, in all governorates.” He added that the government has provided official cover for numerous civilian massacres, by organizing press conferences and lying about the provenance of mass graves. “The Iraqi government brought in journalists and said, ‘Look, ISIS killed these civilians,’ when in fact it was the Hashd al-Sha’abi,” he said. “The reality is totally different from what ends up in the media. At least ISIS had the courage to not hide its crimes.”

Yet even that is not enough to describe what the liberators–people who were liberated from ISIS by American sponsored forces have done.  As Taub said, “Throughout the ISIS period, in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, the Iraqi government has carried out mass executions in order to mollify an outraged public.”

If there are no good guys in a war, what does that mean?

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