Need to avoid civilian deaths weighs on
minds of U.S. forces in Mosul battle
Send a link to a friend
[March 18, 2017]
By Angus MacSwan
QAYYARA WEST AIRFIELD, Iraq (Reuters) - As
the battle for Mosul moves to the narrow streets and densely packed
houses of the Old City, U.S. artillery gunners and helicopter pilots
supporting Iraqi forces face an age-old problem – how to avoid killing
They place their faith in precision missiles which can hit their target
with great accuracy. But human instinct also comes into play against an
Islamic State enemy which has used civilians as human shields and hides
in houses and mosques.
"Our mission is to find and destroy ISIS. We are not here to kill the
wrong people," said Captain Lucas Gebhart, commander of the 4/6th
Cavalry's Bravo Troop of Apache attack helicopters.
The troop is based at this airfield about 60 kms south of Mosul, as is a
rocket battery which fires into west Mosul.
A major site at the height of the U.S. occupation, Islamic State
captured Qayyara from Iraqi government forces in 2014 and destroyed it.
The Iraqis retook it in July last year, and now the U.S. Army is
building it up again as a support base for the Mosul operation.
Gebhart, who wore a U.S. Cavalry hat with a crossed-sabre insignia along
with his regular uniform, has been here since December. The troop flies
close support for the Iraqi army and escorts medical evacuations. It has
had more than 200 engagements with Islamic State fighters in that time,
"We fly every day, weather permitting. We are firing missiles most of
the time," Gebhart told reporters.
The Iraqi army started its offensive on Mosul, Islamic State's last
stronghold in Iraq, in October and retook the east side of the city,
bisected by the Tigris river, in January. The west, including the Old
City, is much harder going.
"The west side is very congested and it will present new challenges for
us. We realize the need to be careful as we go forward," Gebhart said.
One of those challenges is avoiding civilian casualties in a conflict
where fighters are mixed in among the population and sometimes hiding
"Everyone that flies with me are fathers and husbands, so we are very
deliberate to avoid casualties we don't want. We use guided missiles.
The things we shoot from an Apache, they go where we want them to go,"
Targets are identified and approved by the Iraqi army. But circumstances
can change in a moment.
"I have personal experience of human shields. I engaged a target and
they pulled a family of women and children out of a house. The missile
was already in the air but I was able to move it," he said.
"You've got a little bit of time. If something happens post-missile
release, we have procedures to move it."
Gebhart, aged 32, joined the military as a teenager after the 9/11
attacks on the United States. He served in the 82nd Airborne in Iraq in
2003 before going to West Point and becoming a cavalry officer. He also
served two tours of duty in Afghanistan.
"I love my job. I don't lose sleep over it," he said.
WE LOVE TO FIRE
In another section of the base, the 18th Field Artillery "Odin" battery
operates a High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), fired off the
back of trucks.
[to top of second column]
Displaced Iraqis flee their homes as Iraqi forces battle with
Islamic State militants, in western Mosul, Iraq March 18, 2017.
On Friday afternoon, the battery fired 10 rockets, each worth about
$100,000, in the space of about 20 minutes. They headed skywards in
a cloud of white smoke and a flash of fire as a Bob Marley song
played from a platoon tent. They would reach their target in east
Mosul in about a minute.
Lieutenant Mary Floyd explained that the rockets were GPS-guided.
All fire missions were approved by senior officers at the Combined
Joint Operations Center and the coordinates were sent to the battery
"The rockets go really high so we have to clear airspace -– civilian
and military -– along the flight path. We have had to end missions
because they saw aviation," she said.
Although rockets are often aimed at targets in built-up, populated
areas, the battery was confident they would hit what they intended.
If the rockets are off target, they do not detonate, she said.
"They have very, very low collateral damage, so we like to use them
a lot," Floyd said, using the military term for civilian casualties.
"When the rockets hit they land at near a vertical angle. That
really confines the blast to one house."
The battery has fired hundreds of rockets since deploying to
Qayyara, she said.
"The tempo changes. We'll go a couple of days without orders. Then
we might be firing all night."
The issue of civilian casualties has dogged the U.S. military during
its long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, from shootings at
check-points to drone bombings. In the battle for Mosul, Iraqi and
U.S.-led coalition war planes have also been pounding parts of the
Figures of such casualties are hard to come by. Washington has
stressed its forces take every effort to avoid them.
On Tuesday, a prominent Iraqi politician and businessman, Khamis
Khanjar, said at least 3,500 civilians have been killed in west
Mosul since the offensive closed in on it.
The U.S.-led coalition said in a statement that up to March 4, it
had assessed that "more likely than not", at least 220 civilians had
been unintentionally killed by coalition strikes since the start of
Operation Inherent Resolve.
While the men and women of Odin battery were fully aware of the
risk, they believe in their work.
"We love to fire. It makes me very happy," Floyd said. "At night it
is very beautiful."
(Editing by Hugh Lawson)
[© 2017 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2017 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.