More Civilians Than ISIS Fighters Are Believed Killed In Mosul Battle : Parallels A morgue in Mosul, Iraq, documented more than 5,000 civilians killed during the battle to free the city from ISIS — likely more than the number of ISIS fighters that died.

More Civilians Than ISIS Fighters Are Believed Killed In Mosul Battle

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RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

There's been an important unanswered question about the battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul even five months after it ended. How many civilians were killed as U.S. and Iraqi forces launched their intensive air and ground assault against ISIS? It was a nine-month fight, and some 100,000 civilians were believed to be in Mosul, trapped there along with ISIS fighters when the battle plan cut off an escape route.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

NPR's Jane Arraf went to Mosul to try to find out how many died. It turns out it's likely that more civilians died in the battle than ISIS fighters. Before we listen to Jane's report, we want to warn you it includes disturbing accounts. And it runs about seven minutes.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: It's a windy Friday at a cemetery on the west side of Mosul. You can hear the call to prayer from a mosque nearby. Kids play among mounds of freshly dug red earth. The headstones are mostly just chunks of concrete. Some of them don't even say who's buried there, just the neighborhood where they were killed. But the grave diggers remember everything.

HAMID MAHMOUD HUSSEIN: (Through interpreter) We dug these graves with a bulldozer. This is an entire family - one, two, three, four, five, six.

ARRAF: That's Hamid Mahmoud Hussein. In this cemetery alone, he and his colleagues buried more than 1,000 civilians killed in the battle against ISIS. They say most of them died when the houses they were hiding in collapsed on top of them in artillery, mortar and airstrikes.

HUSSEIN: (Through interpreter) There were coalition planes - F-16s, B-52s and Apache helicopters - and then ISIS was launching mortars. And the people were in the middle.

ARRAF: There are a lot of children buried here. I'm standing in front of one of them with a concrete marker with red paint on it. It's the name of a 15-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother. The little girl had her arms around her brother to protect him when the house collapsed around them. They were buried in the same grave. The people who buried them here say they couldn't pry them apart.

The other graves tell the story of what happened as Iraqi forces and U.S.-led airstrikes tightened the ring around ISIS and the civilians trapped with them. There's the grave of an 80-year-old man said to have starved to death when civilians ran out of food. Some were killed by ISIS. In one day alone, they shot more than a hundred people, including children, as they were trying to escape. But the grave diggers say most of the survivors talked of houses collapsing in airstrikes and mortar attacks, like the one in March the U.S. acknowledged led to the deaths of at least 105 civilians huddled in a building with two ISIS snipers on the roof.

As we talk, a military helicopter hovers overhead. Everyone here can tell by the markings it's coalition.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is Amreki.

ARRAF: Beyond the cemetery, in the old section, there are entire city blocks without a building still intact. Many were the homes of people advised by military forces to stay put or kept there by ISIS as human shields. So how many civilians were killed? The U.S. says it has confirmed 801 civilians dead in coalition airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria during the entire war against ISIS. But the military acknowledges it doesn't do complete investigations like interviewing witnesses. There is one place where the numbers are solid. That's the office that issues a death certificate for each body. And there, the director of the Mosul morgue gave NPR the count.

RAED AL-ABADI: (Through interpreter) During the liberation, more than 5,000. More than 5,000. Those are just the ones we received so far. We have women. We have children. We have men. We have entire families under the rubble. We still haven't pulled them out.

ARRAF: That's morgue director Dr. Raed al-Abadi. The figure is just civilians. The morgue doesn't deal with military casualties or ISIS fighters. And that figure doesn't include the 400 bodies laid out in his morgue, waiting to be identified, or hundreds of bodies believed still under the rubble.

AL-ABADI: (Through interpreter) What killed them was destruction by the aircraft. Coalition aircraft destroyed the people. They destroyed buildings, houses, streets, everything. Damned ISIS was shooting one or two bullets, and the aircraft would turn around and destroy the whole neighborhood.

ARRAF: His count of 5,000 civilians killed is much more than the number of ISIS fighters the U.S. military said were in the city and presumed dead. And it raises one of the major questions of the battle for Mosul - should U.S. and Iraqi forces have launched such an intense bombardment without leaving an escape route for civilians? At the time, U.S. and Iraqi military commanders said they were doing their best to protect civilians. But they compared the intense urban fighting to World War II's Stalingrad.

ISIS used suicide bombers, drones, snipers on rooftops, used civilians as human shields. They moved in and out of tunnels knocked through walls. As ISIS killed more Iraqi troops, airstrikes intensified. The original battle plan included a route for civilians to flee Mosul, but that would have let ISIS fighters escape, too, so they ended up surrounding them. And that left civilians trapped among them.

At the main hospital in Mosul, Dr. Hassan Zgyr saw the effect of that strategy. He was the head of surgery during the battle. He says older boys and men were more able to save themselves.

HASSAN ZGYR: What kind of bodies I receive? Mostly children and women, and all dead.

ARRAF: Before 2003, Zgyr was an Iraqi army general. He'd seen pretty much everything, but never this many wounded and dead civilians. He actually starts to tear up when he talks about it.

ZGYR: It is like a film passing in front of my eyes. Sorry.

ARRAF: He says many more people were killed by bombs than bullets. And that death toll of 5,000 we got from the morgue is still rising because a lot of the dead are still unregistered. At a small office on the grounds of the Mosul hospital, Iraqis stream in to try to get death certificates. They walk past fading photographs of missing children. A lot of them had to bury their relatives in their yards or communal graves when they were killed. And now, months later, they need to have them exhumed to have them registered as dead and give them a proper burial.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through interpreter) Can you help me? I want to know how to get my son's body out.

ARRAF: That's a woman who says her son was 20 and killed in a mortar attack when they were trying to escape. She buried him in the neighborhood where he died and where crews are still removing the rubble.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through interpreter) We need to get him out quickly because I'm afraid the bulldozer will come and we won't be able to find his body.

ARRAF: And there are more bodies still being found. We go out in the streets of the old city, walking through ancient alleyways past houses in ruins five months after the fighting ended.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: One of the Iraqi fighters showing us around pulls up the remains of a suspected ISIS fighter thrown on top of one of the piles of concrete. No one worries about retrieving those. But underneath these destroyed buildings there are still hundreds of civilians who were killed in the fighting. Residents here say it will take years for the real cost of the battle for Mosul to be counted. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Mosul.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORINNE BAILEY RAE SONG, "CHAINS")

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