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  March 31, 2017

As Mosul's Civilian Toll Grows, U.S. & Iraq Continue War Tactics that Helped Give Rise to ISIS


Sabah Alnasseri of York University argues that the increasing civilian death toll in Mosul shows the U.S. and Iraqi governments are repeating the same approach that helped launch ISIS in the first place.
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AARON MATÉ: It's The Real News. I'm Aaron Maté.

The U.S. may have committed its worst bombing of Iraqi civilians, since the 2003 invasion. A recent airstrike in Mosul is said to have killed more than 200 people, and flattened an entire block. The attack comes as part of the U.S. backed defensive, to retake west Mosul from ISIS. There is speculation the Trump administration has eased restrictions on the air strikes to intensify the anti-ISIS campaign, in Iraq and Syria.

The website Air Wars reports, the U.S. bombings may now be killing more civilians than Russia has in Syria. The fighting in western Mosul has forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.

Joining us to discuss the latest is, Sabah Alnasseri, Associate Professor at York University, in Toronto.

Professor, welcome.

SABAH ALNASSERI: Hi, Aaron.

AARON MATÉ: What can you tell us so far about this deadly strike? We know it happened, on March 17th, but only coming to light weeks later, with reports of this is the worst air strike by the U.S. since they invaded 14 years ago.

SABAH ALNASSERI: That's true, and the conservative estimate was 217 were killed in this building. Of course, at the beginning, the Iraqi Defense Ministry and the U.S. tried to accuse ISIS, or terrorists, to be behind the killing of civilians, but it's not true. I mean, there are a lot of evidence within Iraq that shows clearly that this was a hit by the U.S. ... coalition air strikes.

But this is just a small number of the civilians killed in the Iraq since January this year. Ever since Trump came to power. We see a trend of escalating the conflict in Iraq, in Syria, in Somalia, in Yemen, etcetera. So, since January, and yesterday... more than 4,000 Iraqi civilians were killed. And I was counting on the Iraqi body count, which is also a conservative estimate of the figure. Almost 1,100 civilians were killed in Mosul since January. And, again this is a... conservative estimate. And the UN has even less numbers, more conservative in downplaying the civilian casualties in Iraq for different reasons.

And the most insidious thing about the killing of civilian in Mosul and other parts of Iraq, or in Yemen... is the argument that those who embed themselves to use... civilian people, ... organization ISIS, who use people as human shields, are responsible for the deaths. As if, not the U.S. bombing that killed the people, but those who embed... or used them as a human shield, even the United Nations use such an insidious argument, which is a way of justifying the killing of civilians.

Now, as I said, this is a trend since the new president came to power, January 20th. We can see the escalation of conflicts in Yemen, in Somalia and Syria and Iraq. And a lot of civilians were killed in Yemen on January, the end of January, in Syria, just before the incident happened in Mosul. We see that at the same time there are too scary developments here.

The first one is, and the Trump administration declared three provinces of Yemen, to be area of hostile activity, which means a classical war zone, and all the reason for targeting civilians and killing them, or committing war crimes without impunities. Because if you declare them as war zones, or areas of hostile activities, you argue that the so-called, rule of engagement, are not applied, or barely applied there. So, this is the first scary development.

The second one, is not only in Yemen, but also in Somalia, there's also the attempt of the Trump administration to declare part of Somalia as to be a war zone, or area of hostilities. And, again, here civilians will be attacked with impunity.

So, what we're talking about war crimes that are repeated again and again, and it seems to me that in the meantime any administration in the U.S. They tend to accept that they committed these strikes, but they don't characterize them as a crime. As if by accepting them, they can clean their hands from these atrocities. And this is really a scary development, since January. I mean, we have this under Obama administration, but there were some restriction under the Obama administration how to use this so-called war of engagement. Now that the Trump administration -- you have an illusion... battlefield rules that barely apply. And we expect that a lot of civilian people would be killed in the next few weeks, or month.

AARON MATÉ: You know, back to Iraq, the attempt to retake Mosul is coming against the majority Sunni city, and it recalls previous U.S. attempts to bombard Sunni cities. I'm thinking about Ramadi and Fallujah. Both of these attacks were very, very deadly, and they also helped give rise actually, to ISIS.

So, now what I'm wondering is in this attempt to drive ISIS from a majority Sunni city again, whether the ferocity of this campaign, just like Ramadi and Fallujah, may actually -- even if ISIS loses Western Mosul, which it looks like it will -- could actually ultimately help strengthen ISIS. Or, a similar extremist group, in the long term, for the same reasons that it did in Ramadi and Fallujah. What are your thoughts on this?

SABAH ALNASSERI: Yeah, that's true. That's what I meant by, it's the statement that they will lose their rule of engagement; it sounds like a warning, like a threat. Because the more civilian you kill, the more people get outraged and ... And the more radicalized they get, and the more young people will be willing to carry weapons and to act in a violent way, instead of solving their problem politically. So, the fact that you're creating more ... more insecurity, and more acts of terror, which defeats the purpose.

Now, when President Trump claims that he wants to win wars. He wants to eliminate ISIS that means he will escalate the bombing of these cities. And the number of the civilian deaths will skyrocket... which again, like a self-proclaimed prophesy, you create more terrorists for your policies than actually winning the war, or trying to achieve any sort of settlement or stability in the region.

AARON MATÉ: At the same time, we should note that have been areas of Mosul that have been liberated, and the citizens there have seemed very grateful to have seen ISIS dislodged.

SABAH SALNASSERI: Not quite. Not quite. You know, I wouldn't use the term liberating, because if you look at Mosul, Fallujah, and Ramadi and Tikrit and so on, these are ghost cities, ruins. A 100,000 people were displaced. They can't even go back home for the next few years. So yes, they are happy that they are not under the atrocity of ISIS, but at the same time, they face atrocities from different sector of the Iraqi military, or militias and terrorist groups... who suspect that these people either support, or sympathize, or even members of ISIS.

And that's why you shouldn't take what people say who freed these cities at face value. But when people say, "We were used as human shields," they must say this, because otherwise Iraqi army of the militia would suspect that they are sympathizer of ISIS. So, to rescue themself from further atrocities, they claim that they were, you know, used as human shields... That's one.

And I wouldn't say that the raping, it was, you know, these cities have million of inhabitants, historically, you know, dense areas, any attempt to ... (broken audio) violent or ... taking them and ... to ... higher death toll of civilian ... and accepting them as collateral, which, again, I mean, if you compare a civilian death in Mosul, with the number of ISIS there, it is ridiculous.

Maybe three or four times more civilians are killed compared to them ... ISIS ... in the city. So, this is anything but a victory or liberation.

AARON MATÉ: What is the alternative, though, if ISIS is controlling Mosul and they're deeply embedding themselves in the population, what's the answer? How can they be taken out?

SABAH ALNASSERI: Well, the answer was, I mean, I said this years ago on the Real News. The way ISIS occupied Mosul in 2014, was very characteristic of the Iraqi, the corrupt Iraqi state. The army, the security forces, they didn't defend the city. They just left the city, so ISIS... to take it over. Because these militias, who are mostly, you know, members of the Shiite posse(?), they didn't really care about these cities, and the western and northwestern part of Iraq, thinking that they are Sunnis or whatever.

So, this ethnic, sectarian worldview, or this myopic worldview, is the reason why these cities were occupied by ISIS in the first place. And, again, people in... in Mosul, especially officers, generals, soldiers of the dissolved Iraqi army, where you know, they could have liberated the city if they sensed that this government, the Iraqi government, was sincere about reconciliation. Was sincere about equal treatment of different, you know, groups in Iraq, was sincere about bringing social justice, economic development, etcetera, in these cities, but they were not. They didn't sense it.

And they were saying that there was a serious attempt by the Iraqi government under Malachi(?) (bad audio)... Badi(?) to reconciliate [sic], etc... the ... The ... ISIS within a week or two, just like it did before with Al Qaeda. But they didn't sense, ever since, you know, this Shiite/Kurdish parties governing Iraq, any sincere attempt by this government to control this... marginalized segment of the population. So again, the problems could have been stopped but ... The people in Mosul sense that they could've got rid of ISIS, in a short period of time, and they would have had a completely different development ... but that was not going too ... nether by the Iraqi government nor by the U.S.

Just to give you an example, when this attack on March 17th happened, and 450 people were killed, the Defense Minister first accused ISIS of committing the crime. And then it was silence for two days, and so there was a pressure from the parliament and the speaker of the parliament, to issue an investigation. Only then did the defense ministry start investigating this incident. That shows us that there is a... publicity of part of this ... of Iraq ... would be U.S. against the civilian population in Iraq.

AARON MATÉ: Okay, so you've identified the key critique of the Iraqi government over the previous years, which is that it's sectarian, favors Shiites over... and has marginalized Sunnis, but there does seem to be some involvement of Sunni militias in this Mosul offensive. And some claim that the role of Shiite militias has been sidelined. Shiites, in some cases not allowed to enter certain areas.

Is that not a potential sign of advancement on the Iraqi government's part, when it comes to addressing the concerns of Sunnis and involving them in the country's politics?

SABAH ALNASSERI: Well, two things, here: The first one is Mosul is an important province for Turkey. And, you have Turkish troops and military base... and you have Mosul. So, the Iraqi government knew exactly that if they Shiite militias went into Mosul that means they would probably face a war with Turkey. And there's a huge Turkmenian minorities in Mosul, from Turkish origins ... Turkish origins. So, and Turkey is very much interested in this part of Iraq. But to avoid conflict with Turkey, of course they kept the Shiite Militia outside of Mosul on the western ... outside the city that cut off the logistic support for ISIS from Syria.

The second thing, is that these so-called, you know, Sunni tribal forces, these are mostly forces that arise of the Shiite parties, who benefited from the Iraqi government against other Sunni tribes, or against the government. So, the Iraqi government is engaging in the... divide and rule, by separating the good Sunni tribes that collaborated with them, and the bad ones who oppose them.

So, again, this is anything but a ... plan to reconciliate [sic], and create a homogeneous, unified Iraq. It is, you know, at the end of the day, the governing parties, be them Kurds or Shiites, what they're doing they're pursuing their own particular interests, and they divide and... and rule a different Iraqi population against each other, to sustain their power. This is again ...

AARON MATÉ: So, then the alternative to a campaign that involved U.S. led bombings that kill a lot of people, plus a sectarian driven offensive, or a sectarian influenced offensive, would be then to empower more Sunni militias and halt these strikes from the air?

Is that what would be your prescription for how to conduct this Mosul offensive in a more humane and effective way?

SABAH ALNASSERI: Well, I mean, the U.S. has an enormous leverage on the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government depends on the U.S. to stay in power. It's obvious. So, if the U.S. government is sincere about solving the conflict in Iraq, and defeating ISIS and bring in some sort of stability and order in Iraq, they could use their leverage, vis-a-vis the Iraqi government and pressure the Iraqi government to substantively... initiate approaches to reconcile with a different segment of the Iraqi population that are alienated and ...

And let the people themselves ... the peace. Once they sense they are accepted on the same terms, they are included in all kind of social, economic whatever, political developments of Iraq. They would get organized and they would get rid of ISIS in Mosul, and other parts of Iraq. Just like they did in 2007, by the way. When the U.S., at that time, General Petraeus support ... some militia ... (bad audio) which they did, within a few weeks.

But that means ... then because they sensed there was a sincere some sort of approach for reconciliation. But then it turned out to be, a fake approach that led to nothing, actually. So, there is no sense among ... of the Iraqi population. By the way, that ... the city ... of the Iraqi population, but this government is capable and willing of reconciliating [sic] and engaging as some sort of national unified development in Iraq. I mean, the government parties in Iraq, the Shiite and Kurds, are so provincial, so myopic in their worldview, so interested in particular interests in staying in power that, you know, this trumps every social, economic, political, initiative it would reconciliate [sic] the rest of the Iraq population.

So, you need a radical, you know, not only institutional but, structural reform within Iraq. And I think U.S. has enormous leverage, if the U.S. is interested in having stability and peace in Iraq and defeating ISIS. It's not through bombing and more killing, quite the opposite, do both the economic and diplomatic institutional reforms and pressure. This is the only way out of this vicious and ... circle.

AARON MATÉ: Finally, just taking a broader regional view, I'm wondering if you think that -- if it's true that the Trump administration is escalating its operations in Iraq and Syria and Yemen, and certainly the rising civilian toll would indicate that it is -- if that has any implications for the ongoing Russian and Iranian campaign, inside Syria, which has also has killed many civilians--

SABAH ALNASSERI: Yes. Yes, that's the problem is, as I say, I mean, all these regional and global players, ... not only the U.S. look at ... Russia, and so on. All of them are interested in gaining some territorial capital, some political capital on the ground, for future negotiation. Because all of them are interested in having their influence secured to produce... in the future devolvement in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, etcetera...

So, there is no sincere attempts to find a peaceful solution. You know, when the U.S. makes a concession to Russia, and etcetera, to negotiate with the Syrian position and the Syrian government, at the same time they intensify military conflicts on the ground and create new allies, like the ...

Now this, of course, this will create a conflict with Turkey, because Turkey considers the Turkish forces ... as a terrorist organization. U.S. used them, utilized them against, not only ISIS, but against even sometimes, you know, ... So, that means all the ... engaging in ... and stable ... in the long term, and none of them is really interested in making peace. And that's what I have ... long ago, the new world order, is a new war order. It's a permanent war.

And I think U.S. ... this is a ... U.S. as the most effective strategy in sustaining dominance due to the lack of alternative economic, political, whatever devolvement, due to the crisis, it will sustain with a militarized war on terror as long as they can. So, that means the alternative is to pressure the Iraqi government and whatever governments in the region, to change their policies, and the American people, they need to pressure their... you know, government and especially the military apparatus to change their policies radically, if they are really interested in creating peace.

For me, it's not a coincidence, that at the same time, the Trump administration, you know, issued two executive... immigration ban on these countries, where they precisely are engaging in and most intensified, you know, civilian killings. And they are telling these refugees from these countries, not to come to the U.S., to stay in Yemen, in Somalia, in Sudan, in Iraq, etcetera... to be killed by Iraq, by the U.S. air strikes. This is a different form of population control.

AARON MATÉ: Professor Sabah Alnasseri of York University, in Toronto, thanks very much for joining us.

SABAH ALNASSERI: Thanks for having me.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

-------------------------

END



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